19 April 2006

Arsenal - Villareal Preview: Farewell To Highbury

OK. This afternoon we'll see the final European game at Highbury. It's obviously huge for the team, as we need to do as much as possible at Highbury. It's been our recipe in every tie so far -- get the goals in the first leg, and then hang on. AC Milan failed to do so yesterday and now they must score in a difficult visit to Camp Nou next week. We don't want any of that situation, and so it's crucial to both score and keep a clean sheet.

The good, unsurprising news is that Cesc will be available tonight. He's been crucial in the wins against Real Madrid and Juventus, and he's sure to play a key role tonight as well. Reyes is out due to his silly yellow card in Turin, and of course Adebayor is unavailable in the CL. Wenger has been able to rest his key front players a bit, but the back line has been under seige of late and is starting to appear a bit fatigued, particularly Eboue. Defensive play from the wide midfielders will be crucial.

Villareal certainly have the scoring threat to make Arsenal sweat, particularly with the first leg in Highbury. Riquelme is the obvious keystone to their attack, and the Gunners must harrass him all night. Villareal are missing their keeper Sebastian Viera due to suspension, and their two starting CBs (Gonzalo Rodriguez and Juan Manuel Pena) who are both injured.

Make no mistake: Villareal are a dangerous team. It's a cliche but only because it's true: you don't reach this stage without demonstrating quality. To be sure, Villareal have arrived in the semis by the thinnest of margins, winning the ties with both Rangers and Inter by the away goals rule. Villareal are making noises about a "zonal defense" which can only play into Arsenal's hands. If Inter can get two goals and Gers three, then I have to believe Arsenal will get their chances as well.

But all that is on paper and makes no difference whatsoever once the whistle blows. I'm nervous and tense, and it's still seven hours before the game. This afternoon will be a struggle, particularly if I get stuck in a meeting as looks likely. But I have faith in the Gunners. They know what the match means, and having this last European match in Highbury is obviously an added incentive. I'm sure they'll do Arsenal Stadium -- and the fans that fill it -- proud. Fight hard, give them no time on the ball, and be clinical and ruthless in front of their goal. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

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