Big games are what we all live for at the end of the day and they’ve rarely come any bigger in a European game at Highbury than hosting the nine-times European Champions for the first time in a competitive match. Having been on the end of a potential hiding in the Bernabeu, where probably no one other than those drinking all day in Madrid were even vaguely optimistic about the result, this was where we came to the crunch. We’d taken them apart in the Bernabeu but that would mean nothing unless the goods could be delivered tonight. So this was an historical occasion of the highest order and the only thing not in doubt would be the intensity of those privileged souls lucky enough to have a ticket for the match. Would it be our last ever European match at Highbury or could we overcome the World’s biggest and most famous club for a second time.
Having laughed at the Chavs the night before and enjoyed the squirming idiocy of the ‘Chosen One’ (chosen presumably to be an arsehole of the scruffiest kind) in his post match interview all that now mattered was this the real deal. Arsenal lined up as in the first leg, quite rightly, whereas Madrid made a few changes but that didn’t involve dropping big fat Ron. Arsenal opened with our 4-1-4-1 line up that started in Madrid.
Just a thought – but I have never seen longer queues for programmes ever – did they sell out tonight?
With Real attacking the North Bank we made a fairly nervous and tentative start, not helped by some seriously suspect Slovakian officials. Roberto Carlos shot wide after some early Real pressure. Ronaldo looked suspiciously offside as Lehmann saved his header. Reyes had a shot wide after the ball broke his way, but in the restricted spaces of Highbury he was not as effective tonight as he was in the Bernabeu, but that said Salgado was hardly the attacking force he usually is for Real. Real were passing and moving well in the early stages and dominated the first ten minutes or so. Ronaldo was yards offside before a reasonable penalty appeal. This shortly before Guti stopped a fine Eboue run at the expense of a yellow card. Henry’s free kick saw Senderos miss a great heading opportunity.
Hleb to Freddie to Cesc who picked his spot but saw the shot blocked for a corner. Another Ronaldo dive, swallowed by the ref but deservedly greeted with ‘You fat bastard’. A Gravesen slow motion tumble won Roberto Carlos a free kick that was blocked to massive applause. Highbury was seriously up for it tonight. Reyes tripped – nothing – Zidane tumbled – free kick. And that summed up the ref during the first half. The ref Lubos Michel then paced out a 15-yard wall for Arsenal but Lehmann saved from Beckham anyway.
Senderos won a great ball in the air. Hleb to Henry as we got back in the game. His shot seemed to be blocked then the second phase saw Henry pick out Reyes whose shot was blocked by a header that was deflected for a corner but could have gone anywhere. Seriously close to the opener! Reyes axed but no card for Ramos. Reyes and Freddie on a fast break. Raul was yards offside, not given and to add insult to injury he left his foot in which injured Lehmann. He should have been carded, but wasn’t, even though I believe there was no intent. A good Arsenal move was ended by a foul by Bravo on Henry. Henry and Cesc came close to completing another fine Arsenal move as we edged ahead on points. Fabregas is now the real deal and was giving another masterclass tonight.
A Henry break set up Reyes who misses a great chance as he crashed his shot against the bar; it should have been our opener. Real broke fast though and Kolo had to make a blinding tackle to halt a dangerous attack. Roberto Carlos booked for a foul on Reyes and the Brazilian was not happy – tough shit! Beckham yards offside but it was not given by the seriously suspect lino in front of the East Stand. Eboue saw off Carlos and the first half ended nil-nil despite all the open football. Time for us all to breathe again.
No changes after the break as Cesc was the last player to take to the field. There was to be a long 45 minutes to endure but amazingly it actually passed quicker than in the Bernabeu. Probably because the football was end to end, full of action, excitement and quite a lot of skill from both teams. Salgado opened the half by kicking Reyes. Eboue won a great tackle on Guti but the wimp stayed down. Flamini on Beckham – massive applause. The youngsters were now as up for it as the crowd and giving their all. The whole team were!
We’re over passing once more around the edge of their box, please shoot Arsenal! Henry is working back like the rest and my money is currently on Arsenal’s youngsters lasting the pace better than the ageing Galacticos. Hleb on Roberto Carlos for a free kick given by the ref from some 50 yards away – a total joke. Freddie given offside which he was, just – but none of Real’s in the first half were given as off – how bent or incompetent was the lino? An elbow thrown by Gravesen was missed. Henry given offside but it was seriously suspect as decisions go.
Real’s best chance of the game as Raul hit the post and the second shot saw Lehmann pull off a brilliant save. Senderos heads clear. Gravesen shot wide and was then late on Senderos to earn a deserved yellow card. He tried to shake Philippe’s hand but Swiss Tony wasn’t having it. The replays on the screens of the earlier save set off a massive chant of ‘Lehmann’. Another nothing free kick for Real. Beckham to fat Ron who can’t control his header. My notes say the ref is bent but I don’t recall quite what prompted that conclusion. Possibly the free kick to Beckham that never was and was allowed to be taken from entirely the wrong place.
Great move down our right ended with a Hleb shot wide. Pires replaced Reyes. Rob started slowly and took a while to get into the game. Freddie and Henry were our sharpest forwards to date but Hleb was doing himself proud, Cesc was pulling the strings and Gilberto was impressive just in front of our back four. Zidane had to foul Flamini to stop a break. Hleb to Eboue with a deflected shot that hit the side netting. Both sides were going for it. Attack and counter attack. Freddie was held back but it was not given. Senderos with a great header. Fat Ron took out Eboue as he was forced to work back.
Raul replaced by Cassano. Madrid’s forward line had been mobile and interchangied well, but were seriously well marshalled by a strange back four who are growing in stature every game. A clear shove in the back by Salgado on Senderos in their box, not spotted. Hleb to Henry for a great shot well saved by Casillas. Hleb tripped for a free kick, which Henry whipped in only to see it headed clear. Best solo of the game came from, whom else, but Henry who rounded it off by flashing his shot just wide. 14 minutes to go and I must have looked at my watch a million times already.
Long ball to Henry but Casillas was out well. Pires did well before Thierry saw his shot blocked. Still end to end stuff and nerves frayed in every stand at Highbury. On the pitch they’re doing us proud. A tremendous block by Freddie from a free kick touched to Roberto Carlos. They got yet another iffy free kick, which Beckham took, and Kolo, a colossus in defence, headed clear. Henry picked up a yellow for a foul on the keeper. Salgado was replaced by Robinho, as Madrid became increasingly desperate. Another Beckham free kick, another clearance by Senderos. Bravo took out Hleb and we gained precious time, a free kick and Madrid picked up another yellow card.
Dennis on for Hleb who was deservedly applauded off for a storming performance. Senderos has his iffy moment in what looked to be a slice over our bar. Casillas was up for the corner and on our fast break Pires saw his long range shot stopped on the line by Roberto Carlos with the keeper still upfield. Heart stopping stuff as the crowd sang the Gunners home with three minutes of stoppages. Beckham hoofed it forward, Eboue hoofed it back. Whistles all around the ground willing the ref to end it as Lehmann saved from Robinho. Final whistle – Arsenal are through and Liverpool are out. ‘One team in Europe’ as two knackered sets of players exchange pleasantries and shirts. Elation all around the ground for what was probably the best ever nil-nil seen at Highbury. As John said to me ‘Just how did two teams playing such open football only manage one goal between them over two legs?’
So the final eight teams remaining are Lyon the dark horses of the tournament, A C Milan who stuffed Bayern. Benfica who have already seen off Manure and Pool. Villarreal who squeezed past Rangers on goal difference, Juventus who squeaked through with a jammy goal, Barcelona who shat on Mourinho plus the yet to play winner of Ajax and Internazionale Milan. And of course the only ‘English’ team remaining – the mighty Arsenal - Illustrious company indeed.
What a fabulous night it was!