Who would have thought that Arsenal FC would be the Premiership's sole representatives in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals? Arsène Wenger's young side are well off the pace at home, and were expected to flounder when the going got tough in Europe. But against Real Madrid CF, they suggested that what Wenger has started to build in this final season at the club's old stadium, will bear fruit well into the future at Ashburton Grove.
Before the match, the talk was of great European nights at Highbury. But in this swansong campaign at the 73-year-old ground, a classic was served up to rank among the very best. What it lacked in goals, it more than made up for in drama. It was a fascinating, compelling contest between the old and the new; the experience of Madrid versus Arsenal's vibrant and developing team. Madrid pressed with intensity, eager to dispel chatter that the era of the 'galáctico' was drawing to a close. The youthful Robinho and Cicinho were left on the bench. If Madrid were to win, it would be the old guard calling the tune. Arsenal absorbed pressure that became scarcely tolerable to Highbury supporters well acquainted with continental heartbreak.
Madrid sought out Zinédine Zidane, just as FC Barcelona had fed Ronaldinho the night before. Quick touches, short passes and a frantic energy – all missing from their play in the first leg in Spain – left Arsenal backtracking and chasing possession. "Attack, attack," shrieked nervous home fans desperate to see a hiatus in the Madrid barrage, as even Thierry Henry was forced to defend deep in his own half. Jens Lehmann saved Ronaldo's header, Roberto Carlos and David Beckham both thrashed free-kicks at goal. Madrid were displaying an intensity and drive borne from a season of criticism and underachievement.
Arsenal's self-belief never wavered. Right-back Emmanuel Eboué, 22, playing just his fifth UEFA Champions League game, looked to press forward in support of Aleksandr Hleb whenever the occasion allowed. Cesc Fabregas, at 18 already the starlet of the Gunners midfield, was rarely panicked into a rushed clearance, his flicks and clever one-touch play further evidence of his confidence. At left-back Mathieu Flamini, 22, was the measure of Beckham while Philippe Senderos, 21, stood firm nearly a year to the day after making his first UEFA Champions League appearance with Arsenal. The London club defeated FC Bayern München 1-0 that night, but it was not enough to take them into the quarter-finals.
This time all they needed was another clean sheet. Wenger had described his side's recent performances as "more stable, more resilient, and more dangerous" and they proved as much here. Reyes and Hleb were quick to join Henry up front and the pair often sparked Arsenal's attacking play from the wings. The passing was precise and should have resulted in the lead before the break, Reyes curling a shot off the crossbar.
Yet the final word went to Arsenal's remarkable makeshift back four, who had conceded just two goals in seven UEFA Champions League outings coming into this match - and none since the 2-1 victory at AFC Ajax on Matchday 2. When Raúl González's shot struck the post 18 minutes into the second half they had earned their luck. Raúl turned the rebound back towards the gaping goal but Lehmann's brilliant, stretching save kept the scores level. Relief turned to belief. Arsenal's astounding run continues.
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