20 April 2006

Arsenal 1-0 Villareal

Halfway there. The 1-0 win is not everything that Arsenal fans would have hoped for, and yet it's much better than we might have feared. Keeping the clean sheet was most important, particularly as Villareal have advanced from both previous ties due to the away goal rule. So while 1-0 isn't as good as 2-0 or 3-0... it's a far sight better than 2-1 or 1-1. And any of those scorelines could have applied, had the officals decided things differently.

The match itself was tense of course. In the first half, Arsenal looked the better team, and fashioned a few decent chances without converting. In particular, one clear Henry goal was ruled out for a dodgy offsides call. Then, off a cleared Arsenal corner, Henry fed Hleb in a dangerous position, and his low cross was met perfectly by Kolo Toure for the goal. I can't tell you how happy this made me. Kolo is probably my favorite player for the Gunners: central defender, hard worker, always a good attitude, and very. Very. Good. But he had never scored at Highbury, and time grew short for him to break that duck. I'd be chuffed if he scored against West Brom; to have him score the last European goal at Highbury is just fantastic. Cheers, Kolo!

Toure-iffic! (image from BBC)

But shortly after, Villareal had a shout for a penalty. After some pinball in the Arsenal box, Gilberto got tangled with Jose Mari on the edge of the box, and he went down hard. No call was given, probably in large part because Jose Mari channeled Greg Louganis all evening. The Yellow Submarines deserve their name, because they sure spent a lot of time diving. Post-match photos showed that the tackle came just outside the box, but in the event, the whistle didn't blow and Arsenal cleared their lines.

The second half saw good chances both ways. Villareal held much more possession than they had in the first half, but in the end couldn't make it tell. Arsenal had another dodgy offsides call or two, while Villareal had some dangerous freekick opportunities that came close enough. Dennis Bergkamp had a late chance that was cleared off the line (though I believe the flag was up on that play as well).

A word or two about the officials. The referee -- Konrad Plautz from Austria -- had a difficult job. Villareal are a team that comes in hard in the tackle but go down easily themselves, and that's a real challenge to officiate. They worked hard to manufacture as many fouls as possible, and spent a lot of time arguing about it. In the end he handed out five yellow cards to Villareal, and Tacchinardi will miss the next leg. He also did a fair job of sorting out the real fouls from the acting, and generally kept control of things. The linesmen however were not up to the task. They had several baffling calls, and Arsenal should have had two more goals than they did. Disappointing, in such a crucial match.

In any event, Arsenal have the 1-0 lead. Still, just one quality Riquelme free kick and Villareal are level. They're certainly capable of scoring... but they're also capable of conceding, and an Arsenal goal would make their task difficult indeed. Next Tuesday will certainly be incredibly tense once again.

But between now and then, we have a little matter of the North London derby on Saturday. It's the match that may well decide fourth place, and both teams will be up for it. I'll preview the match later in the week; it's going to be a classic and I'm really looking forward to it.

The Arsenal season will be defined by the next six days. I can hardly wait!

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