By Richard Clarke in Madrid
In an otherwise dark, dark season, this result stands out as brightly as the brilliant white shirts worn by the Real Madrid side so soundly beaten by Arsenal on Tuesday night.
A virtuoso goal from Thierry Henry two minutes after the interval was enough to secure a first leg lead in this Champions League Knockout Round tie. But this was no smash-and-grab raid by an English outfit counterattacking on the Continent.
The visitors might have scored in the opening seconds, should have had another in the 10th minute and continued to go forward all night. Madrid had their opportunities too but, in the main, they were outhustled by wonderfully committed Arsenal side.
In the build-up to this game Arsène Wenger had overused the word “belief”. That and defensive stability, he argued, would be fundamental to his side’s chances against an in-form Madrid side. In the end, they displayed both qualities in abundance.
The second leg is still to come, of course, but this was a great performance on a great night capped by a great goal.
We can only hope that, as Wenger also suggested in his pre-game press conference, this can be the springboard to lift them further up the Premiership so they can enjoy European nights such as this night year.
The formation the manager chose to employ was no surprise but the players he filled it with did cause a mild raising of the eyebrows. Alexander Hleb was chosen ahead of Robert Pires on the right of a five-man midfield while Jose Antonio Reyes returned from injury to take his place on the opposite flank.
With eight players injured, mostly defenders, Mathieu Flamini maintained his job swap from right midfielder to left back. There was little option. The Santiago Bernabeu is one of football’s cathedrals. And tonight’s congregation was as passionate and expectant as ever. Real Madrid’s illustrious history makes them feel they almost own the European Cup. They were not going to be knocked out by a side that had never reached the last four.
However, the opening stages suggested precisely that.
The visitors may have had the lead after only 80 seconds. Madrid gave away the ball in midfield and Henry drove forward. He spotted the run of Reyes into the left hand channel. The former Sevilla striker shot left-footed across Madrid keeper Iker Casillas. He thrust out his left hand to bat the ball aside.
In the eighth minute, Henry cleverly fed Ljungberg who had scampered into the area. The Swede’s first touch beat Casillas but also pushed the ball wide. Ljungberg tried to hook his foot around the ball and shoot but Roberto Carlos thundered in with a crucial tackle at the vital moment.
At this stage it was all Arsenal. They were playing with a confidence rarely seen this season. In the 10th minute Reyes curled in a gorgeous ball from the left and Henry rose above his marker to meet the ball with his head. He planted his header wide when he should have scored.
The visitors were continuing to impress. The midfield triumvirate were working well. Gilberto sat in front of the back four allowing Ljungberg and Fabregas hustle and harry their counterparts for Madrid. The home had no platform from which sustain pressure and launch their attacks.
It took until the 26th minute for their first chance to arrive. Zinedine Zidane crossed from the left and David Beckham crashed his header wide at the far post.
However just after the half-hour Madrid should have scored. Flamini's mistake allowed Ronaldo to feed Beckham. Lehmann rushed out to the edge of his area to block just as the England captain got his shot away.
By now the home side had evened up the balance of play. Lehmann was increasingly busy. Before the interval, he pouched a long range shot from Robinho and then punched clear a 30-yard free-kick from Roberto Carlos.
However, just as the fourth official indicated two minutes of injury time, Ljungberg nearly dribbled through on his own only for Casillas to hacked clear.
At half time it was so far, so good� then, two minutes after the restart, it got much, much better.
Fabregas fed Henry in the centre circle and the striker held off Ronaldo and skipped past Alvaro Mejia and Guti before racing into the area and muscling past Sergio Ramos. He then planted an angled shot past Casillas and into the far corner of the net. It was stunning even by Henry’s high standards which are as lofty as the rafters of the Bernabeu.
The 28-year-old celebrated his 34th Arsenal goal in the Champions League by running towards to the 3,500-strong visiting support with his arms out wide. The cathedral had its messiah for the night
Madrid seemed stunned. In the minutes that followed Ljungberg prodded goalwards and Henry blazed wide at the far post.
The home side did clear their collective head to muster some opportunities by the hour-mark, mostly notably when Raul nodded over at the near post. But, for the most part, they were lacking the final ball and Arsenal’s defenders had a dogged demeanour this evening.
With 20 minutes left, Lehmann rushed out to deny Beckham but, at the other end, Ljungberg and substitute Abou Diaby had much clearer chance to extend the visitors’ lead. On both occasions they were denied by Casillas.
Madrid continued to fire in crosses but they never forced a decent save out of Lehmann. The nearest was they came was a scramble in dying minutes.
Referee: Stefano Farina
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