By Richard Clarke at El Madrigal, Villarreal
A stunning strike from Emmanuel Adebayor left Arsenal with a significant advantage after their Champions League Quarter-Final first leg at Villarreal on Tuesday night.
Arsène Wenger’s side had been second best in the first half. A 10th-minute strike from Marcos Senna was the least the Spanish hosts deserved after flying into the visitors from the first whistle.
However the interval would be Arsenal’s salvation. They dominated Villarreal after the restart and grabbed an exquisite equaliser in the 66th minute when Adebayor chested down a pass from Cesc Fabregas before unleashing a sumptuous overhead kick into the far corner.
Both sides could have forced a winner after that but Arsenal deserved their draw and will be much the happier with this result.
If they avoid a defeat or a high-scoring draw at Emirates Stadium next week they will reach the Champions League Semi-Final for only the second time in their 123-year history.
Given their recent form and the lingering injury to Robin van Persie, Wenger’s team selection was entirely expected. He sent out the same side as Saturday with Samir Nasri, fit after flu, replacing the ineligible Andrey Arshavin.
It was the now familiar 4-2-3-1. You could argue it was a variant on the 4-5-1 that had seen Arsenal to the Champions League Final with a draw on this ground three years ago.
For their part Villarreal sprang a surprise as Manuel Pellegrini opted to leave Robert Pires on the bench. The pre-match previews had been based around the Frenchman who served Arsenal so well from 2000 to 2006.
An hour or so before kick-off he was happily chatting with current team-mate Pascal Cygan, who had followed him here from North London, Johan Djourou, Emmanuel Eboue and Arsène Wenger.
If, as he had said the night before the game, the Arsenal manager had handed him the “worst moment of his career” when he had replaced him with Manuel Almunia after 18 minutes of the 2006 Final, then there was clearly no lasting bitterness.
The same was probably not true of the Villarreal fans. Wenger’s men had robbed a side that had only entered top flight Spanish football a decade ago of the opportunity to feature in Europe’s top club fixture.
Before kick-off, El Madrigal was swathed in yellow and full of noise. Arsenal were whistled and booed. They were on enemy territory tonight.
Villarreal were quickest off the grid once the game began and, fittingly, it was a man named Senna who got the goal.
In the opening minutes Joseba Llorente had seen a shot blocked and Gonzalo Rodriguez nearly forced home a right-wing corner, colliding with Manuel Almunia in the process. The Spanish side were stalking Arsenal at a tempo the visitors could not match. Theirs was an incessant game based on perpetual motion and crisp passing.
That said, the goal was avoidable. In the 10th minute Senna collected the ball 25 yards out in space. He was not closed down quickly enough so decided to let fly. The ball may have swerved in the wind, clipped a defender or Almunia may have been unsighted – but it still should not have found the top corner of the net.
Arsenal had barely got themselves going and they were 1-0 down
It was a stark reminder of the way Wenger’s men had played on this ground three years ago. Jens Lehmann’s last-minute penalty save has understandably squeezed out the memories of a desperately disjointed display on the night.
Certainly this side have shown themselves to be made of sterner stuff than that since the turn of the year. So it was no surprise to see them respond. In the 18th minute, Nasri’s low shot was turned aside at the near post by Diego Lopez and the keeper then spectacularly tipped wide a header from William Gallas. Neither knew the Frenchman had been adjudged offside.
By the midway point of the half, Arsenal had just about shaken off their bad start. However the same could not be said of Almunia and that early collision.
In the 27th minute the keeper was replaced by Lukasz Fabianski. It was only the second Champions League appearance for the Pole.
Naturally the 23-year-old’s inexperience would be tested early. He dived full length to turn away an angled drive by Senna and recovered to block a follow-up effort from Joan Capdevila at the near post.
Villarreal could now sense insecurity in Arsenal once more and turned the screw. Rossi drove straight towards goal and was brought down by a combination of William Gallas and Alex Song on the edge of the area. The latter got a booking the former got an injury. Kolo Toure deflected Ariel Ibagaza’s free-kick wide and the same player then found Sebastian Eguren from the resulting corner. The centre back nodded inches over the bar.
Four minutes from the break Clichy was turned by Rossi on the right-hand byline and he tapped the ball back into the path of Cani, who blazed over. It was clear to Wenger that Gallas was now struggling so Johan Djourou replaced him two minutes before the break.
On the whistle, Arsenal did have the ball in the net but Cesc Fabregas’ free-kick was deemed too quick by referee Tom Henning Ovrebo who booked the Arsenal captain.
It nearly proved so costly. Eight minutes after the restart, the Spaniard brought down Capdevila and was lucky to escape a second yellow card.
Arsenal had emerged from a break like a new side. For the first time in the game they managed to put Villarreal on the back foot though chances were still at a premium. Nasri nearly weaved his way through and Adebayor steered a header wide, Arsenal were now controlling the game but not testing the keeper.
That was until the 66th minute.
Then again, Lopez was not extended by the equaliser. Like the rest of us he could only stand stock still in admiration.
Fabregas clipped a seven-iron of a pass to Adebayor on the edge of the area. In one fluid movement the Togolese striker chested the ball down and hooked an acrobatic shot into the far corner.
It was his 15th goal of the season and, like the brace on Saturday against Manchester City, was expertly supplied by his captain.
It was such a fine strike that even Wenger wanted to shake hands with the scorer as he returned to his own half for the restart.
Now it was Arsenal’s turn to go for the kill. Nasri nearly added another from distance before Pellegrini took action by bringing Pires off the bench.
With 14 minutes left, Fabregas stole the ball in midfield and set up Walcott, who fired over the bar.
Just when Villarreal were starting to look like a spent force, they rallied. Senna sent a Howitzer of a shot inches over the bar then Mati Fernandez escaped in the right of the six-yard box but the waiting strikers could not turn in his shot.
Arsenal looked for a winner until the final whistle. And, when it came, the muted applause told you everything about who had taken the spoils on the night.
This tie is not over but it is leaning one way.
- Almunia 27
- Gallas 42
- Walcott 78
- Fabregas (C) Yellow Card
- Song Yellow Card
- Nasri Yellow Card
- Adebayor Goal! Yellow Card
- Eboue 78
- Fabianski 27
- Djourou 42
- Diego Lopez
- Cani 46
- Senna Goal!
- Ibagaza 78
- Llorente 70
- Franco 78
- Javi Venta
- Fernandez 46
- Pires 70