Arsenal and Villarreal clash in the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions League three years after the two teams met on the only previous occasion, in the semi-finals of the same competition. That season, 2005-06, the Gunners triumphed to reach their first and so far only final in Europe’s premier club competition.
Unusually, perhaps, given the pressures on managers at this level, both clubs go into this week’s clash with the same men in charge as in April 2006 – Manuel Pellegrini for the Yellow Submarine and Arsene Wenger for the Gunners. And both have built totally new teams in the intervening three years. Indeed, one of the stars of Arsenal’s campaign that season, Robert Pires, will be lining up against the north London side this time, having joined Villarreal shortly after Barcelona beat the Gunners 2-1 in that 2006 Paris final.
There was incident and controversy aplenty when the two teams met previously. The first leg was played on April 19 at Highbury, and Arsenal only had Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan Athletic to entertain there after the Spanish side’s visit, before leaving the stadium to the developers and moving into their new Emirates home at Ashburton Grove. They won 1-0 thanks to Kolo Toure’s first and only goal for the club at their famous old ground.
Both teams had surprised many by reaching the last four of the tournament, Domestically, Arsenal were, for the first time in Wenger’s reign, struggling to preserve their top-four Premier League status, and only succeeded in clinching fourth place on the last day of the season, beating Wigan while arch-rivals Spurs - challenging them strongly for the remaining Champions League berth - lost at West Ham. But in the Champions League they had been a revelation, keeping clean sheets and defeating Real Madrid and Juventus along the way, despite having to deploy a makeshift defence in the absence of injured stars Lauren, Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell, as Emmanuel Eboue, Mathieu Flamini (as an emergency left-back) and Philippe Senderos came in and acquitted themselves admirably.
Villarreal were no less a revelation, and indeed, given their inexperience in the Champions League – it was their first appearance in the competition - their progress to the semis had been an even greater achievement, featuring victory over Inter in the quarter-finals on away goals.
In the game at Highbury, Thierry Henry put the ball in the back of the net in the first half but was wrongly adjudged to have been offside. If Arsenal felt hard done by, their Spanish opponents (though Pellegrini's team was largely South American, with strong representation from Argentina and Uruguay) would have their own grievances before the night was over. The Gunners made the vital breakthrough just before the break when Aliaksandr Hleb, beginning to show his worth in an Arsenal shirt, drilled in a low cross that Toure planted in the back of the net.
In the second half, Arsenal appeared to decide, after a dominant opening, that it was better to protect a 1-0 lead than risk going for a second and conceding a costly away goal. But Austrian referee Konrad Plautz enraged the Yellow Submarine when he ignored strong claims for a penalty as Jose Maria was impeded. It looked a clear-cut foul, and AS had no doubt, its headline the following day being "Penalty!" in huge yellow letters. The paper insisted, "Jose Maria wasn't just taken down, he was assaulted, The referee would have been comic if he hadn't been a weapon of mass destruction."
By brandishing yellow cards to five Villarreal players and none to the Gunners, and by blowing for full-time before Juan Roman Riquelme could deliver one final set-piece, Plautz further endeared himself to the Villarreal faithful. AS referred to the official simply as "the devil". "Robbery in London" chimed in Sport.
However, Villarreal's Josimo admitted, "In the first 45 minutes and the start of the second half Arsenal were far superior to us, and the Spanish media also praised the "maestro" Henry, while urging Luis Aragones, Spain's coach at the time, to build the national team around Cesc Fabregas in the summer, "Arsenal play at the speed of light," said El Pais, "but they never quite finished off the tie".
From an Arsenal perspective, Plautz had done an OK job, and there was no doubt the clean sheet was a massive plus. But they had been restricted to the one goal thanks to Pellegrini's strategy of keeping a narrow midfield, forcing Arsenal to play wide, though in doing so they also restricted Riquelme's creative options. But with the Gunners denied space to play their accustomed one-twos, Villarreal's defence did just enough to give themselves hope of overturning the tie in the second leg in Spain.
The game at El Madrigal was far too tense to be a classic, and in fact Arsenal appeared unusually nervy and disjointed on the night. Sol Campbell was back but somewhat ring rusty, and when Flamini had to be substituted early on, Wenger had no option but to summon Gael Clichy from the bench for the first time since breaking his foot at the beginning of November 2005.
The action was largely forgettable, though the hosts had reason to rue the profligacy of Guillermo Franco, who headed one inviting Javi Venta cross wide and another, from Marcos Senna, over the bar. Henry was unusually tentative,but the start of the second half was delayed by a pitch invader wearing an Argentina shirt, who tried to present the Arsenal captain with a Barcelona shirt that had the name Henry printed on it. He was about 14 months too soon.
However, the game hinged on an 88th minute incident, when Clichy fouled Jose Mari and Villarreal were awarded a penalty. Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann psyched out the dejected Riquelme, and the Gunners were through to face Barcelona at the Stade de France on May 17.
Graham Lister, Goal.com