By Richard Clarke
Arsenal fans are daring to dream.
Their side reached the Champions League Semi-Final for only the second time in their history on a wonderful Wednesday night at Emirates Stadium.
The tie was delicately poised at kick-off. Arsenal were in the driving seat having grabbed that useful 1-1 draw at Villarreal last week.
However the job was far from done.
And they went at the work with gusto tonight. Theo Walcott shovelled a shot over Villarreal keeper Diego Lopez in the 10th minute.
On the hour Emmanuel Adebayor steered home a crucial second and, nine minutes later, Robin van Persie rammed home from the spot after Walcott had been fouled in the area.
Sebastian Eguren received a second yellow card for protesting the penalty. It was a sad end to Villarreal’s involvement in this tie.
This had been 180 minutes of pure football played between two sides with a similar philosophy. However, right now, this Arsenal side are irresistible.
A season of desperate lows and fierce criticism could just end in historic fashion.
Wenger’s side now face the considerable mite of Manchester United in the Semi-Finals.
The main talking point in the press box when the team-sheet came out was the absence of Bacary Sagna. Apparently the right back had picked up a virus overnight so Emmanuel Eboue deputised.
It meant that only Kolo Toure was first-choice in the defensive five. Manuel Almunia (ankle), William Gallas (knee) and Gael Clichy (back) had hurt themselves in the first leg of this tie. Johan Djourou damaged his knee on Saturday.
Fit-again Mikael Silvestre was making his first start since January 3 and left back Kieran Gibbs had never been on from the start in a Champions League tie. Van Persie passed a fitness test on his groin to start up front alongside Adebayor.
Samir Nasri and Walcott were either side of Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas in midfield. Denilson dropped to the bench where he joined the returning Eduardo and Abou Diaby.
For their part, Villarreal had lost Santi Cazorla before the home tie and the influential Marcos Senna at the weekend. However, unlike last week, Manuel Pellegrini named Robert Pires in his starting line-up.
The former Arsenal midfielder was still applauding a richly-deserved ovation from the home fans when the game kicked off.
The pace had been relenting from the off at El Madrigal last week and it was exactly the same this evening.
Only this time both sides were at it.
Eight days ago Villarreal bossed the first half only for Arsenal to take over after the break. Tonight it was more level in the opening stages but the home side would take a 10th-minute lead.
Before that, Walcott’s low cross was missed by Gonzalo Rodriguez at the near post and Fabregas collected before clipping a cross to Van Persie who nodded over.
At the other end, Giuseppe Rossi’s deep free-kick was volleyed straight at Fabianski by Diego Godin at the far post.
Fabregas then reached the byline and cut the ball back to Adebayor who twisted into space but could not quite control the ball.
Both sides were full of pace and passing but Arsenal had the edge in both departments and would deserve their lead.
Fabregas touched on a right-wing pass from Eboue and Godin slipped to allow Walcott clear into the channel. It was one-on-one but the England winger still had options to his left.
He decided to go it alone and was proved right. He expertly scooped a shot over Diego Lopez and the ball seemed to hang for an eternity before dropping into the far side of the net.
Pires’ shot deflected dangerously wide in the 16th minute and Bruno had an effort blocked shortly afterwards.
Despite that Arsenal were still the better side. Adebayor saw a header clutched on the line by Lopez and then fell foul of the offside flag a couple of minutes later as Arsenal continued to create.
On the half-hour, they thought they had scored again. Mati Fernandez hauled down Fabregas just outside the Villarreal area and Van Persie’s fast, dipping free-kick was palmed out by Lopez at the far post.
Adebayor was quick to pounce and nodded the ball goalward, the backtracking Pires inadvertently chested it further towards the net only for Rodriguez to hack it off the line.
Arsenal claimed the goal but replays proved referee Wolfgang Stark had called correctly.
Fernandez planted a tame free-kick into the hands of Fabianski towards the interval but, in truth, another Arsenal goal seemed the more likely.
Adebayor nearly profited in the six-yard area after Van Persie had pressured Rodriguez into an error and then the Togolese striker failed to capitalise following fine work from Eboue and Walcott down the right.
But Villarreal were very much in the game and saved arguably their best chance of the half for injury time. Fernandez fired over a corner and Godin smuggled a header just over bar.
Both the crowd and the players needed the interval. It had been a breathless first half but it was Arsenal who had the crucial advantage.
All they had to hold on.
But, then, that is not the Arsenal way is it?
The start of the second half was more of the same. Villarreal were purposeful and precise but they were playing a passing game that Wenger’s has distilled to perfection at this Club down the years.
It was the Sorcerers versus the Apprentices.
On the hour, Van Persie pirouetted into space on the edge of the area and measured a pass to Adebayor on the left of the area. The striker prodded his shot past Lopez and into the far corner. It was his 16th goal of the season, his sixth in six Champions League starts this season and the cue for pandemonium at Emirates Stadium.
Four Arsenal players – Adebayor, Eboue, Silvestre and Song - danced by the corner flag. Even Arsène Wenger could not resist a jig on the touchline.
It was the crucial goal and afterwards Villarreal began to unravel.
Godin clipped Walcott close to the right-hand byline and the referee pointed to the spot. It was a soft spot-kick to concede and Eguren’s protests earned him a second yellow card plus a red for free.
Van Persie hammered the penalty home all the gusto and confidence displayed his team on the night.
Arsenal were in the Semi-Finals.
With that in mind, Wenger brought on Nicklas Bendtner and Diaby. The latter came closest to adding a fourth when he dragged his drive across the face of goal.
The home crowd were now in celebratory mood. As is tradition, Rocky Rocastle was remembered insong but so was Pires.
This was of course the farewell he had wanted after his last Arsenal appearance had seen him subbed in the Champions League Final of 2006.
Quite rightly he was afforded a hero’s farewell as he left the pitch.
Pires’s old side might just be heading back to the Final this year.
- Silvestre Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C)
- Walcott 76 Goal!
- van Persie 76 Goal!
- Adebayor 82 Goal!
- Bendtner 82
- Diaby 76
- Denilson 76
- Diego Lopez
- Eguren Yellow Card Red Card
- Rodriguez (C)
- Godin Yellow Card
- Fernandez 64
- Cani 70 Yellow Card
- Bruno 63
- Ibagaza 63
- Javi Venta
- Nihat 64
- Jordi Pablo 70