Arsenal 3 Villarreal 0
If you`re a football fan, this is exactly where you want to be come mid April. In the next nineteen days I will attend four Semi Final matches (the F.A. Youth Cup Semi Final makes up that quadruple in case you were wondering). To call the next six weeks season defining is an understatement akin to describing crop circles as "kinda odd." The hard yards have evidently been put in in the last six weeks, but make no mistake, the next six see us back in the studio now, we`re recording that difficult third album. The question is, will it be our O.K. Computer and set us up for world dominance, or will it be our Be Here Now, flaccid and disappointing? Time will tell, but for last night, Villarreal stood upon the precipice, waiting to be the latest fall guys to be tipped over the edge by a currently all conquering Arsenal side. Robin van Persie passed a fitness test which saw Wenger mercifully restore two upfront, whilst validation for Alex Song`s peerless form in recent weeks arrived as the ever steady Denilson was dropped to the bench in his stead. Banger succumbed to a virus, so Eboue filled in at right back; lending our back four an all the more unfamiliar look.
The manager promised the team would be going for his goals and his team preserved the sanctity of his word, sharpening their fangs and heading straight for the jugular. When adopting such a strategy, Theo Walcott on the wing is like having Nosferatu himself, such is the fear in which his opponents hold him. It was he who raced free on the right flank in the opening minutes, his low cross evaded Gonzalo with van Persie and Adebayor infuriatingly standing idly by in the area, Fabregas was thankfully awake from his afternoon nap and latched onto the loose ball, his dinked cross was met with a firm van Persie header which drifted just over. I have to confess I sometimes wonder about the compatibility of Cesc and van Persie in the same side, both players appear to occupy very similar positions on the edge of the area and I do wonder if they rather crowd one another out. Myself and Jon spoke about this in the stadium, I offered that I preferred van Persie to play further forward when Cesc is plating. Of course, van Persie`s role in the second goal would eventually put paid to that viewpoint!
The visitors were no shrinking violets either; it was their set pieces that were causing us problems, as they had last week. Rossi`s flighted ball to the back post saw Godin completely unmarked but he thankfully hooked his volley straight at Fabianski. The pace of the game was rewarded with an opening goal after ten minutes, Eboue, who looked assured and imposing throughout with his composed defending and relentless pressing high up the pitch, played a ball into Fabregas who cleverly dinked the ball past Godin and into the path of the onrushing Walcott, he homed in on goal and spooned the ball over the advancing Lopez. It was a quite exquisite finish, Vela-esque even. (Is Vela even old enough to have a trademark finish yet?) It was symptomatic of Walcott`s progression in the last year, stronger, better with his back to goal, more confident, more imposing, more composed. There are still elements of his game to iron out, but his slalom run at Anfield last season, followed by his hat trick in Croatia have lent his reputation a more international platform and defenders are visibly terrified of him in this competition. You only have to consult his statistics ever since his debut in 2006 for goals and assists to see that he makes things happen. He`s also learned how to get hold of games earlier on, a trait he did not have in the autumn. But his performance was aided and abetted by Eboue at right back, who linked up with Walcott very well and high up the pitch, which helped Theo get the ball in areas where he can cause more damage.
The first half was being played at a relentless pace; Adebayor kindly gave us recourse to draw breath by volunteering to break the play up by being perennially offside. I sometimes wonder if he was bought kicking and screaming into this world not by a latex gloved midwife, but by a furiously flagging linesman. Most of his offsides were a symptom of pure laziness in refusing to track back when Arsenal`s defence cleared the ball. Arsenal were in a position to sit back and soak up pressure with the one goal lead, thought the visitors objective had barely changed, needing as they did one goal. When Fabregas was fouled on the edge of the area, van Persie sent the resulting free kick fizzing towards goal only to be denied by the palm of Lopez. Adebayor was, for once, lively and headed the ball back towards goal, in the ensuing confusion, Robert Pires momentarily forgot himself and chested the ball back towards his own net only for Gonzalo to hack the ball off the line and deny the most popular own goal of all time. But the Gunners began to sit worryingly deep as the half progressed and Villarreal were finding room on Arsenal`s left, with Nasri far too often too tucked in and not protecting Gibbs. It was when they earned a corner from our left side in first half injury time that they wasted their best chance of the match. Mati`s corner saw Godin again rise above the Arsenal defence and plant a firm header narrowly over the bar. The interval came at a good time, van Persie and Adebayor were too often not lively enough to supplement Walcott`s bright running and the team had started to drop deep. Credit must go to the Arsenal centre halves, Toure- who looks to be back on form- and the much maligned Silvestre, who read the away side`s every intention with some crucial interceptions.
An oft uttered cliché is that the next goal is crucial in a tie like this, but clichés tend to be clichés for a reason (so BBC football pundits can continue draining our license fee money, naturally). And so it would prove, Robin van Persie, much more alert and involved in the second half, turned into space on the edge of the area, Godin bizarrely moved away from the lurking Adebayor, leaving van Persie to play him an inch perfect pass, which Adebayor, astoundingly onside, took in his stride and nonchalantly stroked past Lopez with a flick of his boot. The composure with which he took the opportunity marks a quantum sized leap from the Adebayor of two years ago, who might have panicked. Perhaps the lyrics to the song should be changed to "and when he`s onside, Ade will score." Adebayor, Silvestre, Eboue and Song danced a jig by the corner flag next to Block Six, but the apprentices were outstripped by the sorcerer, as Wenger produced a brief jig of his own that wouldn`t have looked out of place in the stage version of Saturday Night Fever. The goal appeared to kill Villarreal`s belief and a few moments later, the tie was put beyond all doubt. Eboue, again pushing high up the field, spotted Walcott`s run on the shoulder of the last defender; Eboue played the slide rule pass and Godin`s challenge yielded a very soft penalty given by the linesman. Villarreal`s protests saw Eguren earn himself a second yellow card and his marching orders. Despite Lopez`s best efforts at gamesmanship, van Persie smashed the penalty home consummately to cement a place in the semi finals. You would always back van Persie from twelve yards, the sheer power he gets behind the ball and the trueness of his connection will usually ensure the keeper is left with no chance. The last fifteen minutes were something of a procession, we`d discussed in the pub beforehand that the excitement and tension of what proceeded at Stamford Bridge the night before would not be welcome on our turf and certainly not for our stress levels. The crowd spent much of the last five minutes rightly paying homage to an Arsenal legend in the shape of Robert Pires. Legend is an over used sobriquet, but it is one which fits the cranium of Pires to an absolute tee. Better than Bergkamp in my esteemed opinion, maybe not more naturally talented (though there ain`t much in it), but a more consistent producer of the sublime if you ask me. I by no means wish to promulgate that opinion on anybody, but I would possibly argue that Pires is the Arsenal player that gave me the most joy in my time supporting the side.
In the end, an excellent Villarreal side were soundly beaten by an Arsenal team that has transformed itself in recent weeks. If anybody has come to embody this transformation, then it is the now commanding Alex Song. Much like the current side, there have been flashes of obvious potential that makes you think he`s been worth persisting with, punctuated by the odd impressive display in a sea of inconsistency. He looks to have grown a few inches taller and his distribution and sangfroid in possession have improved ten fold in 2009. However, this was by no means an absolutely vintage display, whilst the team pleasingly started on the front foot, the front two were very much a mixed bag and often looked a yard behind the play, particularly in the first half. Nasri is a player I really want to see more from now, he has talent but he needs a bit more personality to impress himself on games. Nasri has seven goals and two assists this season; Arshavin already has five assists and two goals in half the time and one less competition. The second goal came for us at a time when it looked as though we had started to drop far too deep, had Cazorla and Senna been fit to play, the Yellow Submarine might well have exploited that. I still sense there is another gear to find yet and we will now need to find it. The rivalry with Manchester United has thawed somewhat in recent years and played second fiddle to Liverpool and Chelsea encounters; but we will likely have to beat one another on more than one occasion to secure further silverware this season. Two semi finals on the horizon, against Chelsea and United, it does not get much bigger than that. Since the "Big Four" have secured something of a four way hegemony over both of the biggest domestic competitions and Europe`s premier competition (with only Barcelona and Everton breaking that quadruplet- hardly weak opponents), the fact that we are in the thick of this four way tussle on all fronts is really quite impressive from a team that looked weak and toothless for large slabs of the campaign. But make no mistake, the hunt is on, it all starts now. I, for one, cannot wait.LD.