By Richard Clarke
While El Madrigal was magical for Arsenal in 2006, this evening Arsène Wenger knows he faces a different and more diverse threat as his side return to the scene of one of their great moments in European football.
Three years ago, the Frenchman secured his club’s first appearance in the Champions League Final with a 0-0 draw at Villarreal’s tight, intense stadium.
Arsenal came into that Semi-Final tie with only Kolo Toure’s first leg goal to their credit. They looked like holding on until the final minute when Gael Clichy gave away a highly contentious penalty. Jens Lehmann’s stop from Juan Roman Riquelme was momentous and ranks right up there as the most important saves in the Club’s history.
But it also masked a desperate performance from Wenger’s men.
On the night, Arsenal displayed nerves not present in the Final against Barcelona a few weeks later. It seemed that they were almost scared of what they were about to achieve.
They were the antithesis of a Wenger side - inhibited, unsure of themselves and without rhythm.
The situation is very different tonight and, of course, both sides have changed since then. Only Emmanuel Eboue, Toure, and Cesc Fabregas remain from the starting XI on April 25, 2006. Villarreal have lost Riquelme and Diego Forlan but gained Robert Pires direct from Arsenal’s team in that game plus Giuseppe Rossi from Manchester United. They still have Marcos Senna, the bulldozing midfield star of Spain’s Euro 2008 win, but crucially lost his partner Santi Cazorla with a broken leg on Sunday.
"This time [Villarreal coach] Pelligrini has built a team with a different style,” said Wenger. “The first time it was built more on the counter-attack whereas this time it's more about collective pressure.
“When we played against them three years ago they were a team who basically focused on defending and played on the break with Diego Forlan and Jose Mari.
“They gave the ball to Riquelme who would play good long passes and good final balls.
“But since then they have transformed into a team who are more capable of making the game. The danger comes a bit more from everywhere rather than one single style of play.
“In midfield they have Senna and Ariel Ibagaza, who is a playmaker for them as well. They have Pires, who we know about of course. So they can all give a good final ball in this team.
“I believe it is more down to how well we defend as a team on Tuesday night. When we played against them three years ago we knew that if we kept Riquelme quiet we had done a big part of the defensive job. Then if you take care of Forlan’s runs then you have a good chance.
“So it’s a difficult draw for us. They are a team that has a difficult style to cope with. They have a South American way of playing and it is down to us to deal with it. But in the Quarter-Finals of the Champions League you do not expect an easy game.”
Wenger’s travelling party included Samir Nasri who has recovered from flu while Theo Walcott was passed fit despite getting a bang on his knee in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Manchester City. However Robin van Persie (groin) failed a fitness test just before the team departed North London and was left behind with Abou Diaby (thigh) and Eduardo (groin).
You could argue that this is the forgotten tie of the Champions League Quarter-Final. The games involving the favourites, Manchester United and Barcelona, have understandably drawn Europe’s gaze while Liverpool v Chelsea is always going to fill column inches both in England and abroad.
Villarreal and Arsenal are both fourth in their domestic tables after a season in which their title ambitions barely began. So you sense both teams are happy to ‘sneak’ into the last four and take their chances from there. But that is not to say Wenger won’t be positive given his side's fine form of late.
“Yes, that’s what we try to do,” said Wenger. “You ask Villarreal and they would tell you exactly the same. I believe we are two outsiders who play against each other.
“But although it is a real 50:50 game what is really important for us is to go to Villarreal and try to score.
“We must have a positive attitude because that will have a big impact in the second game.”
Certainly Arsenal can not play any worse than they did last time.
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