Kolo Touré's first-half goal, and a ninth successive clean sheet in the UEFA Champions League, earned Arsenal FC a slender but precious advantage to take to Spain and El Madrigal, home of Villarreal CF, for next week's semi-final second leg as the Premiership team bid a winning European farewell to Highbury.
Villarreal came into the match undefeated in five previous encounters with English opposition but were undone by Touré's close-range finish four minutes before half-time that settled a tense tie in Arsenal's favour. The Londoners managed to contain the fulcrum of the Villarreal side, Juan Román Riquelme, for the majority of the game, and should they stretch their run without conceding to a tenth match, a place in the final in Paris on 17 May beckons.
Arsène Wenger had said he believed a high tempo could unsettle the visitors so it was little surprise that the hosts sought to dictate the pace from the kick-off. It seemed Arsenal had pinpointed set-pieces as a potential source of goals, and three times within the opening ten minutes Villarreal might have fallen behind in this manner. As early as the third minute Thierry Henry's left-wing free-kick caused problems in the Spanish team's goalmouth and Touré prodded an effort narrowly wide. Fredrik Ljungberg then came close to connecting with Gilberto's downward header before the unmarked Philippe Senderos nodded over following another accurate Henry delivery.
It was inevitable the English side would be unable to maintain such a frenetic start and gradually Villarreal settled and began to assert themselves. Home goalkeeper Jens Lehmann had to be alert twice in quick succession midway through the opening period, first scampering off his line to clear from the feet of Diego Forlán after Senderos had been caught in possession and then gathering Riquelme's long-range free-kick at the second attempt. Arsenal quickly regained the upper hand, however, a curling shot past the post from Robert Pirès rousing the crowd again before Ljungberg, Senderos and Gilberto all had opportunities to scramble in yet another Arsenal set-piece.
Touré on target
The next corner, the Gunners' fifth of the half, finally yielded reward. Again Villarreal were unable to clear their lines effectively, the ball merely finding its way back to Henry on the left for the Arsenal captain to slide a pass inside to Aleksandr Hleb and the Belarussian's low centre was turned into an unguarded net by Touré. Villarreal almost restored parity before half-time, though, Lehmann managing to punch clear another Riquelme strike from distance. The visitors, however, had shown enough to suggest they carried significant threat of their own, Lehmann palming away Forlán's cross minutes before Touré's goal and another long-range drive at the start of the second half, from Alessio Tacchinardi, demonstrated their intent.
Senderos was then required to divert Marcos Senna's low effort behind and Forlán might have made contact with Tacchinardi's cross-shot although the midfielder then collected a booking that will rule him out of Tuesday's second leg after bringing down the increasingly influential Hleb. The Arsenal man had nearly created a second goal for his team moments earlier, freeing Emmanuel Eboué inside the area only for César Arzo to nod away Henry's flick from the right-back's low delivery.
Play was then broken up by a series of fouls and both sides continued to pass well while struggling to muster a genuine sight of goal. Arsenal's five-man midfield, which had previously nullified Real Madrid CF and Juventus, succeeded in stifling another Primera División outfit and extended to 829 minutes their record-breaking sequence without shipping a goal, to leave the tie intriguingly poised. Villarreal are yet to lose at home in the competition, but simply avoiding defeat will not be enough next week.