By Richard Clarke
Perhaps it was fitting that the final European game at Highbury should end with Arsenal's most familiar scoreline.
This particular 1-0 represents a handy lead to take to Villarreal for the Champions League Semi-Final second leg next Tuesday but, make no mistake, the Yellow Submarines are still afloat.
Kolo Toure stabbed home the only goal from Alexander Hleb's cross four minutes from the break. Arsenal were good value for their lead without ever touching the heights of the 2-0 victory over Juve late last month.
Yellow-shirted Villarreal, nicknamed after a Beatles' song, lived up to the compact, organised reputation. But this game represented a hard day's night for them.
A nervous night is guaranteed at El Madrigal next week.
Arsène Wenger opted to stick with the formation that had seen him through the Knockout Round and Quarter-Final. He pushed Robert Pires into the centre of midfield alongside Gilberto and the fit-again Cesc Fabregas, deployed two wide men to bomb forward and left Thierry Henry up front on his own. It was a 4-3-3 when Arsenal had the ball but a 4-5-1 when they did not.
Villarreal were lacking both first-choice centre backs - Juan Pena and Gonzalo Rodriguez - but had reached this stage through commitment and hard work rather than star names. Arsenal would underestimate the visitors at their peril.
This was the last European night at Highbury and perhaps the last time the floodlights would be used for a competitive game. But in truth these were mere baubles of 'specialness'. This was the Champions League Semi-Final and Europe's top prize was almost within grasp - no other credentials were needed.
Arsenal were up-and-at-'em from the start. In the fourth minute, Cesar Arzo fouled Flamini on the left, Henry swung over the free-kick and Toure's swivelling shot squirmed through a crowded area but whistled wide of the upright.
In the seventh minute the same supplier sent a corner to the far post and Gilberto's header bounced beyond narrowly wide. When, in the 10th minute, Philippe Senderos nodded a Fabregas corner inches over the bar you sensed it would be a matter of time until the home side scored.
And then they did. Unfortunately when Henry planted the ball home from Pires' pass, the assistant referee had flagged for offside. It was a marginal decision and replays suggested it may have been incorrect. Alexander Hleb was offside but not interfering with play; Henry was definitely onside.
Villarreal began to find their feet after the 'goal' and midway through the half they tested Jens Lehmann for the first time. The German No 1 held on to Juan Ramon Riquelme's 25-yard free-kick at the second attempt.
Pires fired wide soon afterwards but the Spanish side were increasingly looking confident.
Despite that, Arsenal should have taken the lead just past the half-hour. Henry's raking left-wing cross was deflected into the path of Pires 12 yards out but Arzo raced in to flick the ball behind. A melee ensued from the corner with Ljungberg, Senderos and, finally, Gilberto all seeing efforts smothered by defenders.
Almost Arsenal immediately had a scare at the other end when Lehmann got only half a hand to Diego Forlan's cross and the ball rolled across the vacant penalty area before Toure could mop up.
Henry fired a couple of dangerous crosses into the Villarreal area in the build up to half time. The second, in the 41st minute, won a corner. It was returned to Henry on the left and he sent Hleb in to space down the channel. The Belarus international looked up and chose his target. The cross was touched home by Toure at the near post. Highbury went wild.
Seconds before the break, another long-range Riquelme free-kick forced Lehman to punch clear off his own goalline. As Arsenal tried to clear their lines, Villarreal claimed a penalty when Gilberto tangled with Jose Mari.
Alessio Tacchinardi and Gilberto swapped long-range efforts at the start of the second half. Then Juan Pablo Sorin flicked on a corner and Toure scooped the ball away from virtually under his own crossbar.
But, in general, Arsenal had the upper hand. You sensed they wanted a second but were extra wary of allowing Villarreal an away goal.
In the 56 minute when Emmanuel Eboue worked himself a wonderful position on the right flank and fired low across the area. Henry stabbed in a shot. It arched slowly towards goal allowing Arzo to nodded the ball off the line.
In the 67th minute, Marcos Senna forced Lehmann to save at full stretch but, in truth, optimistic efforts from distance were as much as Villarreal could muster at this stage. If a second goal was coming it was coming Arsenal's way.
Hleb and Ljungberg were replaced by Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie with 10 minutes left. In the dying seconds of normal time, the older Dutchman floated a ball across the Villarreal defence and Gilberto took flight. The Brazilian just failed to connect with his header. It was the final chance to take a more decisive step towards the Final.
Nevertheless, a 1-0 advantage represents a good night's work for Arsenal.
Eboue takes on Tacchinardi
Ljungberg holds off Venta
Fabregas evades a challenge
Kolo Toure taps home the goal
Kolo celebrates his first at Highbury
1-0 to the Arsenal!
- To buy official Arsenal pictures visit www.ArsenalPics.com.
- Toure Goal!
- Ljungberg 80
- Hleb 80
- Persie 80
- Bergkamp 80
- Álvarez Yellow Card
- Tacchinardi Yellow Card
- Riquelme Yellow Card
- Arzo Yellow Card
- Forlan 90
- Calleja 90
- Franco Yellow Card