24 February 2006

Real Madrid 0-1 Arsenal

I may be the last Arsenal blogger to post on the game. And yet... it's still worth it.

By now you know it all. "Arsene Wenger got what he had demanded when Thierry Henry lead a superb team effort as Arsenal recorded a famous win in the first leg of their Champions League clash with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu." (Soccernet) "Arsenal thoroughly deserved their victory, with Henry and Jose Antonio Reyes missing other good chances." (BBC Sport) "There was genuine backbone to the spine of Arsenal's side and belief must surely now course through them for the remainder of their campaign." (The Guardian) "King Juan Carlos, Seve Ballasteros, Don Quixote, General Franco, Seat Ibiza, Zorro (?), your boys took a hell of a beating…" (East Lower) "But all in all, this was a fantastic, momentous result that will be remembered for years even if the job is only half done." (Goodplaya) "A night to be proud to be a Gooner no matter how long your website has been running." (Arseblog)

Yeah, it was that good.

I am by nature a contrarian. So there's part of me that looks for the alternate viewpoint. Real Madrid were not at their best, and certainly could have scored a goal or two at various points. Arsenal missed too many chances, and should have had more goals. The Gunners still have only a 1-0 lead going into the second leg, and Real Madrid are certainly a threat to score, even at Highbury.

Yeah, yeah. All true. But even so, it was a wonderful win. Everyone on the team played well, and most had fantastic games. And more than anything, it's such a relief, after so many lackluster performances (Anfield!) to have the team play with such energy and organization. It's like springtime after a long winter. And I think we're all entitled to enjoy it for a while.

With that in mind, player ratings may be a bit... generous. And why not?

Player Ratings
Lehmann: 9 While Real Madrid didn't mount as much attack as you would expect, they still had their chances, and Jens handled them all quite well. His save on Beckham (at about 30') was bold goalkeeping at its best. Between Casillas and Lehmann, this match was a real preview of quality World Cup goalkeeping -- Jens is rapidly building his case over Oliver Kahn.

Flamini: 8 Difficult to rate; he was facing top-quality opposition and Beckham did get the better of him at times. Yet he mostly kept Becks quiet, and was well involved getting forward too. One question, though. Does Mathieu get a handball in every match, or is it me?
Senderos: 7 Had a couple of shaky moments (the 30' Beckham turnover, and the near og header). But otherwise was solid and calm. Whenever Beckham got in a cross, Senderos was there to head it clear.
Toure: 8 How vital is it to have Kolo back? Took the lead in keeping the area clean and empty of threat. He was rock-solid, active, and vocal. Becoming a true leader on the club. If Henry leaves, it wouldn't surprise me to see Kolo as the next captain.
Eboue: 9 I can't begin to express how impressed I was by his game. Obviously the ACN did wonders for his confidence, and playing next to his Ivory Coast partner has to help. What a wonder to see him pickpocket Roberto Carlos, Cicinho, and Zidane at various points. Also made some very confident runs (with ball) into threatening positions. A true coming-out party for the 22-year-old.

Reyes: 8 Ruthlessly exploited the holes left by the wayward Cicinho. Has truly taken ownership of the winger role. Had to enjoy this moment.
Fabregas: 9 If Eboue had his introduction party, then Fabregas had his crowning. A game like his would impress anywhere; to do it in front of his countrymen was a sure lifetime moment. Handles his passes like a pool cue, slotting them precisely to where a streaking attacker needs them to be. It's no coincidence that Luis Aragones promptly announced that Cesc would get his first cap for the national team (ironically in a friendly with Ivory Coast). Have to call him the Man of the Match.
Gilberto: 8 I've been hard on Gilberto all year, but this match reminded us all of what he can contribute. Continually broke up the Real Madrid posession before the attacks started, and forced several bad passes that lead to Arsenal opportunities. An inspired performance.
Ljungberg: 8 Another great performance, missing only the final touch. Deserved to get a goal or two for his well-timed runs. Spent a lot of time covering for the defense. Freddie's been playing quite well, and just smells like he's about to go on a goalscoring binge.
Hleb: 7 Probably his best game as a Gunner. Still has a hard time choosing the right pass, and often missed some key opportunities. But was extremely useful in the tackle, winning posession in the midfield, and generally working his tail off. Unpolished but very useful.

Henry: 8 What can you say about a goal like that? There are very few players that can singlehandedly take the game over like that. He only did it for 15 seconds -- actually he was a bit wasteful for the rest of the match -- but it was the 15 seconds that mattered most.

Pires: 8 (76' for Hleb) Worked incredibly hard. (!) Pires is a bit bipolar in his performances, but we saw the good Bob on Tuesday. Probably a good effect on his chances for Valencia.
Diaby: 7 (80' for Reyes) Still rough around the edges, but looked amazingly fearless. I mean, think about it. He's 19, playing in the Bernebeu, in a huge internationally-televised match. And yet he showed no signs of nerves. Forced a huge, aggressive save from Casillas.
Song: n/a (90' for Fabregas) No real time to impose himself. Worked hard, anyway.

So, back to reality on Saturday: Blackburn. Ugh. Let's hope that we're just as committed when playing against an English side with a bit of the thug in their game.

But until then, let's enjoy Tuesday:

(Animation from Irelandboy on Big Soccer).

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