Brilliant performance sees Arsenal through to Champions League semi-finals
It was a night to remember at the Emirates. Arsenal advanced to only their second Champions League semi-final with a spectacular performance that exhibited all the class and style that we have come to expect from Arsene Wenger’s teams. It was a thoroughly fulfilling night that saw solid performances from big name players, and outstanding efforts from Arsenal’s lesser known talents. The win against Villareal now sets up a mouthwatering semi-final with Manchester United. The second leg of that tie, once again, will be at the Emirates.
Yesterday I made these two predictions about the match:
“I really believe that we can win this game comfortably with a strong 4-4-2 lineup.”
“For me the key player is Theo Walcott. There’s a lot riding on his performance.”
I believed that we had to attack Villareal to get the result we wanted and that our best team at the moment is our most attack minded lineup. Arsene Wenger had said that he would be aggressive, but I had my fears that we would play two holding midfielder. Fortunately, Wenger chose to play our best attacking weapons. I also genuinely believed that Theo held the key to unlocking their defense. Considering their ability to possess the ball, there was a chance that we could counter attack them with pace. No one can do that better than Theo. Tonight, he caused problems for Villareal for most of the match.
When I saw the lineup, I genuinely believed that Wenger had made all the right decisions. But what’s astounding is that we lost yet another defender even before a ball was kicked in anger. Barcary Sagna dropped out of the squad with a virus leaving us without three of our four first-choice defenders. Naturally, the back four just about picked itself with the remaining available players. Wenger could have decided to play Song in central defense, but his form in midfield has been so strong that he was smart to keep him there. Across midfield he was joined by Nasri, Cesc and Theo. Adebayor and Van Persie started in attack. When you look at that lineup, there’s plenty of scoring threats all over the pitch. Once it was time for the match to start, I felt confident that we would be able to put Villareal under immense pressure.
I won’t bother recounting the game blow by blow. You saw it, or you saw replays, or you read detailed accounts of the match by now. The penalty kick was questionable, but I think Theo had his back leg taken out and by the letter of the law it was a foul. Getting sent off for arguing is beyond irresponsible in that situation, but I don’t think the penalty kick or the sendig off really mattered in final evaluation. We were on top for most of the match and Villareal never really looked like taking the game back.
The game had some usual story lines. Adebayor scored, Van Persie scored, Cesc set up Theo’s goal with a sublime back flick, and Adebayor strayed offside about 35 times. But the best part of this match for me was watching the performances of our less celebrated players. Let’s start with Alex Song.
For much of this season Alex Song was an enigma. He looked lazy at times, he contributed little to the attack or the defense, and it was impossible to see why Arsene Wenger believed in him. I believe the venerable Arseblog once wrote that it made him sad that Arsene Wenger thought a player like Alex Song was good enough for Arsenal. We all felt that way. But his improvement has been remarkable. He has gone from dreadful, to satisfactory, to wonderful in three short months. Today, I thought he was spectacular. He put in a spirited effort that saw him effectively protect the back four, maintain possession, win the ball high up the field, and distribute effectively in attack. He held the midfield together in a genuinely outstanding performance. Today, all the Arsenal supporters who worried about Matthew Flamini not being replaced in the summer owe Wenger and Song an apology. (Okay, it’s too late for the league, but let’s not dwell on that.) The fact remains that Song is a young player showing incredible quality at a key stage in the season. If he can improve year to year the way he has improved month to month then he’ll be the best player in the world by next September…
For me, Emmanuel Eboue’s performance was another enjoyable aspect of this game. Eboue has suffered tremendous criticism this season. Most of it was more than deserved and self-inflicted. But rather than crumbling, Eboue has chosen to fight to regain respect. He’s a defender that Wenger has converted into a midfielder and it hasn’t always worked to perfection. But tonight he played right back as well as you can play the position. I can only think of one moment in the game where his man got past him, but he quickly recovered to put the ball out of play. He looked alert and even more importantly, composed. As he always does, he got forward well, but was more than willing to work hard to get back when we lost possession. He did have an embarassing moment when he ballooned the ball over the net when a simple cross would do, but otherwise his performance was top notch. It also makes you realize that there’s reason to keep the young Ivorian around. I was happy for him that this happened in front of the Emirates crowd. Getting booed off the pitch probably seems like it happened a lifetime ago.
It was a good game for Lukaz Fabianski as well. He was solid in goal and what I really liked about his performance was that he seemed to have his tendency to leave his net under control. He was off his line quickly when the moment called for it, but he didn’t go wandering all over the pitch as we have seen him do in the past. He wasn’t needed to make the crucial save, but he did what was necessary and probably prevented a few tense moments with his quick reactions off his line.
After the rocky performance Kieran Gibbs put in against Wigan, he had a perfectly decent game against Villareal. They never really exposed his inexperience and I thought he had some nice cameos going forward. Even Silvestre didn’t make any monstrous mistakes. In fact, the defending of our three stand-ins was solid enough that I don’t really remember Kolo Toure doing much of anything at all.
It wasn’t all perfect for Arsenal tonight. One thing that continues to annoy me is the lack of quality crosses into the box. Our wide players are constantly in position to deliver the ball into the box and yet the quality of those deliveries can be shocking at times. The inability to deliver a decent cross with regularity is more of a shame considering Adebayor’s aerial superiority.
Ironically, neither Adebayor nor Van Persie had particularly effective games. Ade managed to mangle a few excellent chances and Robin’s passing and decision making was poor for most of the night. It’s ironic because both players scored and Van Persie showed good awareness and passing to setup Ade’s goal. I suppose it only takes one or two good moments for a striker to make an impression. When you look at what we lacked in February, it was quality finishing. Adebayor may have had an off night in many ways, but he took his chance well to score the second goal. I was disppointed to see Robin choose to go alone during one promising counter attack, but he’s going to do that from time to time. He has a little of that quality to his game. (Interestingly, you see that from many of the Dutch players. Arjen Robben is particularly guilty of failing to pass at the crucial moment.) You might get the sense that I am overly critical of Van Persie, but I only criticize his performances because he is a world-class player who is capable of better things. When you count yourself among the world’s elite, you are held to a higher standard of performance.
The reality is that there is no such thing as a perfect football match. You can find a flaw in any player or team. Tonight, this team was as perfect as the supporters could ask. In final adjudication it was a great result brought about by a swashbuckling performance. It was such a good night of football for Arsenal, that the boss was able to bring on Diaby, Denilson and Bendtner to get rest for Theo, Van Persie and Adebayor. I have no doubt anymore that our best team is our most attacking team. Come Saturday, I hope Wenger keeps the faith with an attacking lineup. It will be interesting to see who gives way for Arshavin. The obvious choice is Nasri, but I almost hope it’s Van Persie. I’d really like the see Arshavin get a chance to play right behind Adebayor. With Chelsea’s defense looking very leaky lately, all of our attacking players should be chomping at the bit.
After the match, the media wanted to ask Wenger about Saturday’s game and the prospect of playing United in the semi-final. He respecfully answered a few questions, but then declined to continue saying that it was time for celebrating tonight’s performance. I couldn’t agree more. There’s plenty of time for looking forward, but right now is the time for enjoying this great accomplishment. If you need any help understanding just how important this win might be, just read my blog previous blog entry. Tonight’s result may have far-reaching implications for the club.
From a season in turmoil to our second ever Champions League semi-final. It’s been a wild ride for Arsenal supporters, but that has made this triumph seem somehow more sweet. I know that I’m enjoying it even more than I expected. And the manner in which we achieve our goal tonight was fantastic. Kudos to the players and the manager. Great work from the Emirates faithful creating a wonderful atmosphere at the ground.
Wherever you are, enjoy this moment. As special as it is, hopefully it’s just another step along the way to bigger things ahead.