Emmanuel Adebayor may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he produced a moment of real craft and quality to put us within touching distance of the Champions League semi-final. With just over 20 minutes to go and Arsenal trailing to Marcos Senna’s early thunderbolt, Adebayor cleverly controlled a chip pass by Cesc Fabregas on his chest before conjuring placing an outrageous overhead kick into the far corner.
It was far from a vintage performance from Arsenal as Villarreal took on 10 minutes and really tested us in the first half. The manager went for the “perfect” side I predicted – Theo Walcott kept his spot while Samir Nasri replaced Andrey Arshavin – but Villarreal were undoubtedly the better side early on. By playing in clever triangles they rarely allowed Denilson and Alex Song to settle and paved the way for Senna’s thunderous opener.
While Senna’s strike was well-struck, I do have my suspicions that Manuel Almunia would have saved it had it not been for his early knock. As it was the ball went in and Almunia was replaced soon after by Lukasz Fabianski who made a crucial double-save seconds after entering the pitch. I thought the Pole did extremely well last night, particularly given his expression suggested he was caught by surprise to be called upon.
While Villarreal’s attack was firing on all cylinders our front four of Adebayor, Fabregas, Nasri and Walcott were struggling. Indeed, aside from a Nasri half-chance and Cesc’s correctly disallowed free-kick goal we had very little to show for a first half in which we were very much second best. To make matters worse, William Gallas went down with a serious knee injury just before the break that could see him out for the rest of the season. As I said earlier, vintage Arsenal it was not.
Thankfully our performance improved considerably after half-time. There was a real heart-in-mouth moment just after the break when the previously-booked Cesc lunged in Joan Capdevila, but the referee showed some common sense to award nothing more than a foul for a challenge where little contact was made.
We then made two decent chances through an Adebayor header and a frustrating opportunity which saw Nasri criminally over-hit a pass that would have set Walcott up. That miss was forgotten soon after though as Adebayor netted his superb equaliser. There’s not much more I can say about his goal other than I seriously believe it’s the goal of the season. Should we go on to win this competition (fingers crossed) then we will be looking back on that moment with real fondness.
From that point on I really thought we were going to win it. Our tails were up and we were playing the sort of strong, patient, possession football that Wenger would have been looking for throughout the first hour. Despite that we couldn’t push on and get the winner as Villarreal found their feet again in the last quarter of an hour with Senna blasting another cannonball narrowly wide and substitute Robert Pires helping force a couple of late chances.
So 1-1 it ended, a fair result and a fairly positive outcome for our boys. The away goal means a scoreless draw or any sort of win at home will see us through and it’s a pretty strong position to be in.
I wonder too about what sort of psychological effect our goal will have had on the Villarreal players considering the quality of the performance in the first-half. It is often said that teams need to score goals when they’re playing well and I just get the feeling that we’ve seen the very best that Villarreal can muster while our boys still have plenty in the tank.
A quick mention on the performances by the Arsenal players. I though Gael Clichy was superb last night, as was Kolo Toure and Johan Djourou once he came on. Meanwhile Bacary Sagna did his job like he always does. In the middle Song and Denilson had quiet first halves before significantly upping their game in the second. I suspect the manager might have had a quiet word to the pair about their workrate at the break.
I thought our attacking quartet did reasonably well under the circumstances. The injuries removed the opportunity to add the fresh legs of Carlos Vela and Nicklas Bendtner in place of Fabregas – who is still getting back to full fitness – and Nasri – who was recovering from the flu. I thought Walcott was our most dangerous player while Adebayor worked his socks off and scored a truly remarkable goal.
And that’s that for another thrilling European night. I’m off to have a beer. Enjoy yourselves.
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