Champions’ League: Arsenal 0 – Real Madrid 0

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
March 9th, 2006 • 10:09 am

It was another great European night for Arsène Wenger’s Gunners. (Who would have thought we’d be saying such a thing a couple of years ago?)

As anticipated, the Spaniards adopted a somewhat more physical approach than in the first leg. However, as the number of yellow cards collected illustrates, this is not something that they do particularly well. And the Gunners were able to deal with this altered approach.

The only ingredient that was missing was goals, obviously. But it was a gripping context nonetheless, with numerous chances and some wonderful saves. Jens Lehmann in particular was once again outstanding. His deflection of Raúl’s strike on the rebound after the Spaniard had hit the post with his first strike was simply stupendous. Even though it wasn’t clear until the replays were shown, there is little doubt that, had Lehmann not recovered after his attempt to stop the first strike and managed to ever so slightly deflect this second strike, it would have been a goal for Real Madrid, and the night might have ended very differently.

That said, the Gunners probably had the greater number of chances and the better ones. Like Real Madrid, they were guilty of over-elaboration at times, but it also took some outstanding defending by players like Salgado and Roberto Carlos to deny them.

I don’t think anyone in the Arsenal team had a bad game. Maybe Ljungberg didn’t contribute as much as he could have, and the substitute Robert Pires was guilty of losing possession at a crucial time in the game, which could have had dire consequences, but on the whole the team performance was on par with the performance in the first leg in Madrid.

Hleb was once again excellent and fully justified his inclusion in the starting line-up. His only flaw was that he never attempted a strike on goal himself, even though he had several opportunities to do so.

Éboué and Flamini were both effective, and Éboué had several forays forward that were quite impressive.

Gilberto Silva and Fabregas were once again very solid in mid-field—although that tackle from behind by Silva in the area was a bit too close to a penalty offence for comfort. The replays showed that he did indeed get the ball and that Ronaldo fell too easily—but the referee could easily have been fooled and awarded a penalty kick. Much to his credit, he didn’t.

Senderos had one scary sliced clearance later in the game that could have easily resulted in an own goal, but otherwise he did pretty well.

As for Kolo Touré… I think that, if Thierry Henry wasn’t currently growing in stature and starting to show the attributes of a true captain, Touré would be the obvious choice to lead the team. He might not talk very much, but his presence at the heart of the Arsenal defence has obviously become more important than Sol Campbell’s. Whenever the defence is a bit shaken, his surges are enough to bring back confidence and inspire the whole team to move forward again.

Poor Reyes was once again the target of much physical abuse (he must be the most fouled player in the Champions’ League), but was still a great threat until he was replaced with Pires, who sadly didn’t have much of an impact on the game.

Lehmann obviously still has a bit of a temper, to say the least, but he’s currently having his best season for Arsenal and I hope that it continues.

And finally Thierry Henry… He seems to have developed the ability to keep his occasional fits of temper or impatience in check in the so-called “big games,” and also to have found the resources and will to track back to help regain possession in mid-field—while still retaining his fantastic attacking skills, of course. Even though he didn’t score, he was once again the star of the show and might just give Ronaldinho a run for his money in the race for the Footballer of the Year award this year. Ronaldinho and Henry were the two true stars of this particular round of the Champions’ League, and demonstrated once again that it takes at least a bit of genius to make football the truly great game that it can be.

Henry’s ultimate crowning all depends on how far the Gunners can go now, of course (and on whether the player chooses to stay and commit to Arsenal). Eliminating Real Madrid was a great feat and will give the whole team a great confidence boost. But they’ve only made it to the quarter-finals so far. And they are still struggling to reclaim that fourth spot in the English Premier League.

A Liverpool-inspired scenario wouldn’t be the worst thing, of course, but clearly improving their domestic form should still be a big priority for the Gunners. The home game against Liverpool at Highbury on Sunday will be the ideal occasion to do just that.

The good news is that there is no other EPL team left in the Champions’ League. This means that we won’t get an all-English draw like Liverpool – Chelsea last year and Chelsea – Arsenal the year before. These all-English contests in the Champions’ League are always a disappointment, and tend to spoil the fun of a European contest.

So, who will it be? Juventus? Barcelona? Milan AC? Lyon? Villareal? Benfica? Inter Milan/Ajax? Tomorrow we’ll know exactly what it would take for Arsenal to win this thing. Is it possible? There’s still a long way to go, but at least the Gunners are starting to show that they are up to the challenge.

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