By Chris Harris at El Madrigal
Arsenal have reached their first ever Champions League Final after a tough, tense but ultimately magical night at El Madrigal.
You have to say they rode their luck. Jens Lehmann made a heroic save from Juan Roman Riquelme's penalty two minutes from time while Guillermo Franco and Diego Forlan were both inches from scoring. In the end though, Kolo Toure's goal in the first leg was enough to set up a tantalising showpiece with Barcelona or Milan on May 17.
After seeing off the luminaries of Real Madrid and Juventus, this was deemed a more benign obstacle. Not a bit of it. Villarreal stretched Arsenal to the limit but they could not find a way past Arsène Wenger's resilient rearguard. His rejigged back four has now kept a record 10 consecutive clean sheets in the Champions League. One more in Paris next month could see Arsenal lift the one trophy which has eluded them throughout their glittering history.
As expected, Wenger made two changes from the team which started last week's first leg at Highbury. Sol Campbell replaced the injured Philippe Senderos and Jose Antonio Reyes, having served a one-match ban, was restored to the line-up. Robert Pires dropped to the bench.
Villarreal is the smallest town to host a Champions League Semi-Final and the local stadium holds little more than 20,000, but they certainly make some noise. El Madrigal was awash with yellow and a combination of claxons, drums and shrill whistling made for an atmosphere to behold.
Wenger had expected to see a more "exciting, attacking Villarreal" tonight and he got just that. Manuel Pellegrini opted for the mobility of Franco ahead of Jose Mari and, with Riquelme pulling the strings alongside the impressive Marcos Senna, the home side caused Arsenal problems.
The Gunners' cause was not helped by an early injury to Mathieu Flamini. The Frenchman, so impressive at left back of late, left the pitch with a grimace after nine minutes. On came Gael Clichy, with just 90 minutes of reserve-team football under his belt since suffering a stress fracture to his foot in November.
Predictably, Villarreal tried to exploit Clichy's perceived lack of sharpness. Javi Venta's diagonal ball from the right left Kolo Toure in a race with Diego Forlan. The Ivorian poked out a boot to concede the game's first corner. After 14 minutes, Franco cut in from the left but wasted a good chance to test Lehmann by firing wildly over the bar from the edge of the box.
Four minutes later Riquelme, drifting wide to escape the attentions of Gilberto, got to the byline to drive over a low cross from the left. Senna, on the edge of the six-yard box, laid the ball back to Juan Pablo Sorin but the Argentina captain shot straight at Lehmann.
It was hard going for Arsenal. Their central midfield shield hustled and harried but struggled to keep the ball for long enough periods to change the flow of the game. When Arsenal did burst forward, the offside flag stopped Henry in his tracks after Alexander Hleb had exchanged passes with Cesc Fabregas and picked out his captain's run in the left channel.
At the other end, Toure made a clutch of important interventions, some well-timed, others fortuitous. But still Villarreal created half-chances. On the half-hour, Riquelme drifted a free-kick into the box but the ball just eluded Sorin's run.
Gilberto, having another good game, made a vital interception when Venta tried to slip Forlan through but the home side continued to prosper on the right flank. Four minutes from the interval Venta took advantage of a loose header from Clichy to loop a cross into the box. Franco stooped low at the near post but Lehmann thrust out his right leg to stop the goalbound header.
Arsenal's goalkeeper was quickly back in the midst of it all when the second half started, getting everything behind Senna's swerving, long-range effort. But Lehmann was well beaten when Franco climbed above Toure to get his head on yet another dangerous cross from Venta. Fortunately for the visitors, the ball flew just wide.
The same striker - fully justifying his inclusion ahead of Jose Mari - was first to Senna's teasing cross but, again, Franco was marginally off target. The away section breathed another sigh of relief.
It looked ominous for Arsenal at that point, particularly with Clichy and Reyes unable to cut off the supply line from the right flank. Nonetheless, as the hour mark ticked by, Arsenal still held their slender advantage. Moreover, an away goal would leave Villarreal needing three.
The problem was Arsenal didn't look like scoring, and Villarreal did. Forlan was the next to go close after 65 minutes, flashing a shot wide after Franco had laid the ball back to him on the edge of the area. Lehmann deserves huge credit for closing down the angle.
Arsenal kept plugging away. Henry was rewarded for more tireless running with a free-kick on the left, near the corner flag. Fabregas whipped the ball across but Campbell's glancing header took the ball away from Henry at the far post. At least another minute had passed. Just 20 left now.
Pires replaced Reyes and his fresh legs helped stem the Villarreal tide. Franco had the ball in the net but an offside flag cut short his celebrations. With Jose Mari now on, Arsenal braced themselves for a final onslaught. But it never really came as Villarreal's relentless efforts seemed to finally take their toll.
There was one final twist. Two minutes from time, Villarreal were awarded a penalty after Clichy was harshly adjudged to have fouled Jose Mari. Lehmann, so magnificent this season, pushed away Riquelme's spot kick. That spelled the end of the road for Villarreal. Arsenal, whose Champions League dream died twice in six years just down the road in Valencia, finally reigned in Spain.
Speaking of history, it's 11 years since Arsenal left Paris in shock after Nayim's last-gasp winner in the Cup Winners Cup Final. On May 17, they return to the French capital with a chance to make this so-called 'season of transition' one to remember forever.
- Flamini 8
- Reyes 69
- Clichy 8
- Pires 69
- Arruabarrena 81
- Roger 81