26 April 2006

Villareal 0-0 Arsenal (0-1 agg.)


The Arsenal is going to Paris.

Can you believe it? The whole 90 minutes felt like a Villareal goal was only seconds away. Arsenal were bunkered and unable to threaten. Villareal held posession at will, though a desperate Arsenal defense limited their chances. The Gunners held on by their fingernails. Surely Villareal would break through at any moment.

After 80 minutes of this, we began to hope. Ten minutes -- if we can hold for 80, surely we can for ten more! And the Villareal desperation grew. Their legs began to weaken; their hope began to fade. Arsenal held posession more and more. Paris was within reach.

And then, one last desperate Villareal effort. A hopeful cross into the box. Jose Mari didn't even jump for it, but when he felt contact, he collapsed to the ground, bringing down Gael Clichy with him. A heap of players in front of goal. And Russian referee Valentin Ivanov -- who had been fair all night -- finally succumbed to the Villareal tactics and pointed to the spot. 88 minutes of torture, and now this.

But we have Jens Lehmann.

And of course you know how it ends. Riquelme takes a long run up. He goes for power and a solid middle-goal placement. Jens guesses left, dives, and blocks. The Gunners scramble the ball out, but it doesn't matter -- Riquelme is rooted to the spot, and his teammates are thunderstruck. They know: this was their chance. And now it's gone.

Five minutes later, and Arsenal were through. I am forced to admit it: Arsenal were lucky. I think the Gunners made their own luck, though hard work, belief, and an incredible defensive effort. But it was clear that the past weeks of twice-a-week football have taken their toll; their tanks were dry and it was only sheer will that kept them going. But Arsenal have now survived 929 minutes of Champions League play without conceding a goal, and there's no way that's luck.

We'll find out tonight who Arsenal will face in the finals. Barcelona hold the advantage but it's still within reach for AC Milan. Either team will be a huge challenge of course, but so were Real Madrid. And Juventus. And Villareal. What will change is the nature of the game. It's a completely different situation -- one match to decide everything. No homefield advantage. No away goals rule. The strategy is completely different, and it will be interesting to think through how Arsenal will approach it.

But that will come later. For now, we can all enjoy the victory. Arsenal finally have a bit of a rest; the next game is at Sunderland, next Monday. Things will remain busy for the Gunners, with Man City next Thursday and finally Wigan a week from Sunday. But then they will have a week and half to recover before 17 May and Paris.

Paris. Six months ago, after the Sparta Prague match, I was in the basement room at the T-Bird on Blackstock Road, signing with the rest:
We're on our waaay,
We're on our waaay!
We're going to Paris,
We're on our waaay!
How we'll get there, I don't know,
How we'll get there, I don't care,
All I know is that we're on our waay!
It's been a long road, Gooners. But we are on our way!

It’s ironic that, in the end, the game that gets the Gunners to Paris and the Champions final is so opposite of the type of football Arsenal is known for. But however they got there, they are there and that is the point. And I am one happy fan.
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