Our last ever evening match at Highbury and it couldn't get any bigger or better than a Champions League semi-final. What a way to bow out to evening kick-offs at our famous spiritual home. Enormously saddened though I am that the floodlights will dim on the top of the fabulous old listed Highbury stands for absolutely the last time after tonight's game just being there for this one had a massively uplifting factor. A huge wow factor to be enjoyed. The emotion of the final evening game at THOF however was dwarfed by the sheer intensity of one of the major matches in the history of the Club.
So there we all were, highly motivated, seriously up for it and raring to go. Controlled South American style football quick, slow quick versus high-tempo Premiership stuff. Villareal had already seen off Everton, United and Rangers in this competition so they don't have a problem with the British style. That said none of these teams play as Arsenal can and like most top European sides we don't exactly have what could be described as a ‘British' style. To open proceedings an impressive pre-match red and white card display spelling out 1913 at the Clock End and 2006 in the North Bank contrasted nicely with the yellow balloons in the away section.
I thought the Austrian ref Konrad Plautz did ok tonight but should have made all those who rolled around the floor for twenty minutes at a time leave the field of play. Apart from that he was also rather lenient with Arruabarrena who looked the most likely to be booked but got away with it.
Early doors Villareal closed us down well, their forwards particularly were closing in on our defenders but there was no way they were going to keep that pace up for 90 minutes and they didn't. Instead they took the classic South American roll around the floor route before miraculous recover followed miraculous recovery. Jose Mari and Tacchinardi being the most frequent exponents of this ploy, although most of them enjoyed a good dive. It was for a large part however the only way they could disrupt our play. Riquelme was class throughout and showing great close control but up against him was my man of the match Gilberto Silva who snubbed him out. He wasn't marking man to man but he always seemed to be there when required. Cesc started a tad ring rusty but generally bossed the midfield whenever he had the ball. Eboue and Hleb on our right flank did the biz yet again and look to working up a massive threat down that side.
Kolo shot wide at one end Forlan hoofed one into the North Bank at the other. Arruabarrena fouled Hleb as he did for most of the game. It looked like we had the lead when Rob played Henry through to score only to see it ruled offside. Texts from those watching on the box indicated this to be a poor call by the lino and had we taken the lead as early as the eleventh minute this could well have been a different game. As it happened we had to wait until the forty-first minute, but more of that later. Early corners won by the Arsenal were headed wide by Gilberto and Philippe.
Amazingly you still can see something new every game and as far as my memory banks stretch I reckon a squirrel on the pitch getting it's own chants has to be a first even at this late stage in the Stadium's history. Jose Mari caught offside a couple of times before Senna took a dive. Great tackle by Kolo who was immense again tonight. Riquelme, not for the first or last time, was well tackled by Gilberto before the squirrel, that had been on the pitch for quite a while, stopped play ‘Squirrel is a Gooner' was just one of many chants at this point. Kolo won a good header but the little bald ref gave a free kick against him, which Riquelme whacked hard from range but Jens saved. Cesc to Rob and an early shot was fairly close, but not close enough. Jose Mari had a bit of pace about him but Eboue and Kolo could match it. An awful dive by Forlan. Cesc to Rob who won a corner with a decent half chance. Senderos had a shot deflected and might even have scored.
Villareal were playing well and were well in the game but we created more realistic chances compared to their long shots which were a tad hit and hope. Henry shot over from a spinning ball. A mad scramble in front of the North Bank as an attack down their left offered their best chance of the half but Kolo cleared. Cesar Arzo was going for an ‘Oscar' after Rob steamed in. Ever the animal is our Rob. Taccinardi shoved Henry for a free kick. Another good move that was spread around most of the redcurrent shirts saw Henry win another corner. The corner was only partially cleared and the ball back in had Hleb popping up on the left near the goal line to drill in a low cross. Kolo stretched his toe further and quicker than the yellow defenders and it was 1-0 to the Arsenal. Top man Kolo!
A great run by Flamini was followed by a fine long pass from Cesc to Henry. Gilberto had to tidy up at the other end but there was still time for the crowd to appeal for handball from a Freddie cross. We were also quite amazed to see the cheating feckwit Jose Mari totally overdo the rolling on the floor routine and the lip from Riquelme as a result earned a yellow card. A half time lead and massive applause as the team left the pitch.
The tension throughout the second half, for my money, revolved around the question as to whether or not we'd grab a second. We could and should have done so. Henry to Ljungberg, to Flamini, to Gilberto whose shot was off target. A Senderos run ending with a shot that hit Henry. Cesc to Hleb with a peach of a line ball. It was a very bright start by Arsenal, not quite the kitchen sink but controlled attacking with a weather eye on defending throughout. A corner for Villareal saw a flick on header cleared by Kolo. Arruabarrena chopped Hleb again and deserved a card just for his foul count alone. Eboue was caught offside as we worked another opening. Jose Mari was replaced by the 99 ice cream man Franco.
Another fine attack down our right saw Eboue get in a good cross that was just a tad behind Henry but it still looked easier to score than miss. Tacchinardi on Hleb from behind and a Kolo header from Cesc's free kick. Gilberto in strongly again. A Freddie break. Another good move had Hleb caught offside from Eboue's lobbed pass. Eboue then delayed a pass that ensured Rob was caught offside. Another great tackle by Gilberto. A half-decent shot from range by Senna was matched by a decent diving save by Jens. Another yellow play actor rolling around in mock agony. A Henry cross and a Gilberto shot. Sorin who'd been fairly quiet was replaced by Josico a more defensive midfielder. Arruabarrena chopped Hleb twice in a minute and still avoided a card. This was followed shortly after by more timewasting from the dying wimps.
A Double Dutch substitution for Arsenal with ten minutes to go, as our Orange men replaced Hleb and Freddie. I got the impression at this point that a lot of players, if not both teams, settled for the one-nil. Although Alvarez had to hold back Henry just in case and was carded as a result. Dennis with a cross that went all the way through and just five minutes added time for about half an hour's timewasting. A Henry cross and yet another Riquelme long range shot.
Game over and we won't actually know how good this result was until the return leg. I think we'll find more room at their place because the have to attack us, but my punditry skills are not all that and I've been told we may even have another game to play before then.
So as it stands now that was the last game under floodlights at Highbury. It was a good one but the Yellow Submarine hasn't been sunk yet although as we saw tonight they are rather good at diving. Much will depend on how easily the referee can be conned in the return match.
No Parisian fat ladies are singing just yet but another clean sheet tonight could prove to be absolutely priceless. What I wouldn't give to have tickets for Villareal. A safe and successful trip to all those going to Spain and give it some for me please.