By Richard Clarke
It was a goalless but glorious night at Highbury as Arsenal marched into the Champions League Quarter-Finals at the expense of Real Madrid.
The star-studded Spanish side, trailling 1-0 from the first leg, threw everything they could muster at Arsène Wenger’s men. But this was a night when Arsenal — dogged, determined, skilful and swift — just refused to be denied.
Madrid had their chances. Jens Lehmann’s incredible paw aside from Raul after the striker’s shot had rebounded off the inside of the post will live long in the memory.
But Arsenal might have saved their fans’ nails from a night of gnawing. Jose Antonio Reyes hit the bar in the first half and Thierry Henry grazed the post twice from long range after the interval.
The tension grew to almost unbearable levels in the dying seconds. But Arsenal’s sixth successive Champions League clean-sheet had proved decisive.
Before kick-off, Wenger had a big call to make over the personnel of his side. In the end, he plumped for the same 4-5-1 and the same XI who had brought back that priceless one-goal advantage from the Bernabeu a fortnight ago. In fact the only change in the entire 18 on show saw Dennis Bergkamp replace Arturo Lupoli on the bench.
The streets around the ground had been buzzing since the middle of the afternoon. You could feel this was a huge night. Europe’s most successful club side had never visited Highbury for a competitive fixture. The anticipation and expectation would be more than met in a breathless first half.
Within two minutes Ronaldo’s far post header had been scrambled aside by Lehmann and Roberto Carlos had thundered a shot wide.
Arsenal might have responded in the best possible way when Reyes collected the loose ball at the far post. However he dragged his shot well wide.
At the other end, a typically fierce drive from Thomas Gravesen was blocked when it looked like it would squeezed through a thicket of legs in the area.
By now, Real’s skillsmiths were starting to ply their trade. Ronaldo back-heeled himself some space in the quarter-hour and only a superbly-timed challenge from Gilberto stopped the Brazilian striker going clear on goal.
A minute later, Guti fouled Emmanuel Eboue just outside the area and Henry’s free-kick sailed inches over the craning neck of Philippe Senderos at the far post.
Suddenly Arsenal were starting to dictate. Fabregas’ deflected shot trickled a few feet past the post midway through the half. When the resulting corner was swung across, Alexander Hleb could only produce an ‘airshot’ when he should have hit the target at least.
Just before the half-hour, Hleb fed Henry on the right of the area and his cut back trickled back across the face for Reyes at the far post. His goal-bound shot was deflected over the bar by the head of Michel Salgado. The Real defender knew little about it.
As the half wore on, matters evened up. In truth there was little midfield; the game just flowed from end to end. The final couple of minutes summed this up perfectly.
While Henry took the attention of two defenders on the left of the area, Reyes was sneaking up on the right. Eventually the ball came to the unmarked Spaniard eight yards out. He hit the ball left-footed just before the backtracking Real defence caught him. It bounced off the bar and away to safety.
Real broke immediately and, seconds later, only a superbly timed challenge from Kolo Toure stopped Zinedine Zidane get a clear sight of goal in side the Arsenal area.
Although the pace of the game barely dropped at the start of the second half, there were less chances. In the opening 10 minutes, Henry saw a shot deflected at one end; Beckham sent a free-kick on the roof of the net at the other.
But by the hour, the game was starting to cook once more. Henry glanced a header wide at the far post.
Then, at the other end, Raul cracked a shot against the inside of the upright from 25 yards with Lehmann. It came back to the Spanish striker and this time he struck the ball from a more acute angle. His bobbling shot seemed to be creeping inside the far corner but the German keeper recovered quickly and somehow managed to paw the ball aside. It was a quite stunning stop from a keeper at the height of his powers.
Arsenal may have killed the game in the middle of the second half. Hleb and Eboue saw decent chances deflected wide. Then, with 17 minutes left, Henry collected Hleb astute pass just out side the area and shaved the post with a low, curling shot. Two minutes later he whistled one just past the other upright
It seemed the home side would be testing the nerve of their supporters to the limit this evening. Wenger threw on Robert Pires from Reyes in the dying minutes. Real brought on Julio Baptista and Antonio Cassano in a bid to lift their now flagging attacking.
They continued to pump probing passes and questioning crosses into the Arsenal area throughout the dying minutes. But the closest they came was when Senderos sliced the ball over his own bar.
Madrid keeper Iker Casillas came up for the resulting corner and so the game ended with Roberto Carlos scooping away a trickling 60-yard from his own goal line as Robert Pires tired his luck from inside his own half.
But, goalless and glorious, Arsenal march on.
- Hleb 86
- Reyes 68
- Henry Yellow Card
- Pires 68
- Bergkamp 86
- Roberto Carlos Yellow Card
- Salgado 84
- Raul Bravo Yellow Card
- Sergio Ramos
- Gravesen 68 Yellow Card
- Guti Yellow Card
- Raul 73
- Ivan Helguera
- Robinho 84
- Julio Baptista 68
- Cassano 73