In an attempt to hoard some money, I confidently asserted prior to the draw that if we were to get Porto or Villarreal I would not travel to the away leg having been to both places already. This of course was when I was convinced that UEFA would ensure two all English Quarter Finals. I had brashly already promised my ticket to the away leg to a friend should our gaze point Spain or Portugal wards, so when we actually drew Villarreal and I found my cynicism misplaced, I had little choice but to accept my cat and my sofa as my match day companions. El Madrigal was the scene of my favourite single moment following Arsenal, best not to return to the scene of the greatest triumph I tried to convince myself.
Pre match a typically errant and ignorant English media had purported both ourselves and United as shoe ins for a Semi Final showdown, honestly, the nerve of Villarreal and Porto to even show up. Unfortunately, that attitude appeared to translate into our players in the opening minutes as Pellegrini`s side; who had surprisingly left Robert Pires on the bench in favour of the half fit Cani, ripped into Arsenal right from the first whistle. Giuseppe Rossi dropped deep, with Cani and Ibagazi interchanging constantly in front of Arsenal`s defence. Denilson and Song were statuesque in comparison with Fabregas looking stranded higher up the pitch and away from the action, which was all in Arsenal`s half. The Gunners survived an early scare when Ibagaza`s corner saw Gonzalo completely unmarked in the area, but his header was rescued from the goal line by Gael Clichy. But Arsenal did not heed the warning, Giuseppe Rossi dropped deep and ran at the Gunners back line, Rossi pirouetted away from the advances of Toure, squared the ball to Marcos Senna who lined up a raking drive from twenty five yards which flew into Almunia`s corner. Had Almunia not been feeling the accumulated effects of Diouf`s callous lunge a few weeks back and an accidental collision with Llorente early on, I would have backed him to at least get a hand to it. Arsenal were apparently playing with two defensive midfield players as well, both of whom are in very good form too. Quite where they were for the first forty five minutes last night is a mystery of Roswell proportions. You don`t have to do an awful lot of research to know that Senna can kick like a mule from that range, didn`t these guys even Google it or look it up on You Tube or something?
The Gunners sole threat appeared to be Theo Walcott on the right through his willingness to run at defenders, other than that our forays forward were docile and amenable for the home side`s defenders. They appeared to have worked out the magic formula adopted by West Ham, Sunderland and Fulham in 2009, "let Arsenal have all the ball they want on the flanks because none of their players can cross for beans" would I believe be a rough translation of Pellegrini`s pep talk. Though Arsenal did come inside to effect once, Walcott slalomed inwards and released Fabregas on the edge of the box; he shifted the ball wide to Nasri, but Lopez easily saved his low shot. That opportunity was a lonely lighthouse amongst a sea of Villarreal attacks. Almunia could grimace his way through the game no more and he was replaced by Lukasz Fabianski, whose impact was immediate. Senna was once again afforded space on the edge of the box to unleash a low shot which Fabianski clawed away; Sagna was uncharacteristically sheepish in his reaction and Capdevila was onto the rebound, which Fabianski was smartly up to stop. An impressive response from the young Pole. Arsenal were to lose the last surviving member of the over thirty Arsenal contingent when Rossi again wriggled past two challenges until Song unceremoniously tripped him on the edge of the area, causing Rossi to fall awkwardly on Gallas. He will be sorely missed at this stage of the season being that he is the only member of our squad who survives the "show us yer medals" inquisition. His presence was certainly missed when Eguren headed Ibagaza`s corner narrowly over. The home side scented blood again, even with all of the prior warnings and a hobbling Gallas left prone at the back, Denilson and Song were, amazingly, still nowhere to be seen as Ibagaza ambled through our powder puff midfield, released Rossi on the right, who brilliantly turned Clichy and tucked the ball back to Cani, but he hurriedly planted his shot over. Arsenal were hardly looking inviolable at this point. Fabregas attempted a quick free kick which ruffled the net but bought him only a yellow card. I wasn`t aware that taking a free kick too hastily was a bookable offence but there you go. After a couple of injuries to senior pros and some egregious defending from the midfield, Arsenal were fortunate to go into the break only a solitary goal behind.
Wenger looked all set to bring Bendtner on at half time before changing his mid at the last minute; I suspect there might have been some kidology there to inspire his sagging troops. But whatever he did or said at half time, it worked. Arsenal were a different animal, Song and Denilson pressed the match higher up the pitch and began to dictate the tempo, meaning Fabregas was not left to twiddle his thumbs. Arsenal upped the pressure territorially and began to hurry Villarreal`s passing in their own half, not allowing them time to advance into Arsenal`s half. Kolo Toure created a dangerous situation by beating Eguren and pulling the ball back and Nasri released Walcott in the area when he should have shot, the ball to Theo was overcooked and Walcott was only able to tamely turn it to the keeper on his weaker left foot. Arsenal`s pressure would pay off; Arsenal again won the ball high up the pitch, leaving Cesc to pick another sand wedged pass to Adebayor in the area, he majestically took the ball on his chest before shocking everyone with a perfectly executed bicycle kick. It was the moment of inspiration Arsenal had been begging for. It also means Adebayor now has 15 goals and 8 assists in 29 games, which compares about equally to van Persie`s 16 goals and 10 assists in 31 games. Both players are however poles apart when it comes to the veneration of the supporters. Something to think about there surely.
The Arsenal side which looked confused and disparate in the first half, looked gregarious again. Adebayor shifted a pass to Samir Nasri who fired just wide from eighteen yards. Fabregas again won the ball high up the pitch, released Walcott on the right, put he fired wildly over. Villarreal introduced Pires, who changed Villarreal`s poise slightly. Senna sent another exorset sailing just over Fabianski`s crossbar. Then Pires released Mati down the right and he drilled his pull back towards Franco, but the imperious Toure prevented him and smuggled the ball away. 1-1 was an incredibly decent result for us on one of Europe`s tougher grounds, whilst we have flourished in the opulent confines of the San Siro and the Bernabeu in recent years, Villarreal have an unrivalled record at home in this competition. It is my belief that Arsenal fans have become pretentious and protective of our style of football over the last few years, but Villarreal showed us that we are not the sole guardians of the beautiful game that we like to think we are, they played it and they played it better for forty five minutes. However, the character we showed in the second half was very commendable, having lost our two most senior figures, the Gunners were left with one player over 25 in the second half. A special word for that veteran too, because Toure really took that responsibility on his shoulders and performed excellently. Denilson and Song looked like rabbits in the headlights in the first half but are to be commended for getting a foothold in the game when it would have been easier for them to hide. However, Arsenal really need to work on their crossing, Adebayor and Bendtner provide decent physical presence in the area which we criminally under utilise due to our infuriating inability to put in a decent ball from wide areas. A lot of teams are catching on. It was a good result but this tie is still very much in the balance. Villarreal could realistically wipe out our away goal advantage in the opening minute of the first leg, they`re certainly capable of scoring and without Gallas, Djourou is in for a real test in the coming weeks. It took a moment of peerless genius to open Villarreal up, other than that chances were at a premium. I must say I do not like the look of the system we have adopted over the last two games; it appears to leave us very vulnerable defensively as the three central midfielders do not look entirely sure what their roles are supposed to be. Hopefully, van Persie can return next week to make that a moot point.LD.