James Lawton: Arsenal leave football of the gods behind in stumbling last stride on long march to Paris

Click to follow
The Independent Football

After praising the eccentric but often brilliant nerve of Jens Lehmann maybe we should not dwell on the last stride of Arsenal's march to the Stade de France and the pinnacle of the European Cup final.

It was really a stumble, a dragging across the line of disconcertingly inoperative bodies and stale minds - and how will Arsenal ever discharge the debt to Lehmann's penalty save in the 88th minute? Probably only by taking a line of credit from the World Bank.

But then, of course, none of that will count an old, plugged franc when Thierry Henry goes home to Paris and Arsenal get another chance to play football of the gods. Last night the best they could produce was the scuffling of mortals who had lost their way.

It was just enough - and maybe they can say in their defence that sometimes good deeds of the past are generously accounted.

No doubt the pressure on Arsenal had never been greater and nor had the demands upon their confidence to play the best of their football. It didn't come; indeed, this was one of their least distinguished nights in Europe, given their potential to play the beautiful game. However, there was that minimum achievement which could yet augur the club's most brilliant moment. They survived for that opportunity because just a few Arsenal players - Gilberto Silva again, being the most notable - met their challenge fully and because a defence that was often outplayed never forgot to put their bodies on the line.

Their obligation had been to attack Villarreal, put them in their places, say that they were a brave, minor team well behind in the queue for the kind of glory on offer in French capital next month.

Unfortunately for his peace of mind on an agonising night for their manager Arsène Wenger, the Spaniards and South Americans so intelligently moulded by the Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini refused to accept that premise. Worse still, there were passages of flowing and sometimes intricate play when they openly mocked it.

All of the Arsenal conviction of the earlier rounds dwindled quickly in the opening action and their problems were only heightened by a looseness on the ball which at Highbury would have brought howls of unrest from their fans. Here there was only the taut hope that they could survive - and that Freddie Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes might become just a little less profligate in the potentially disastrous habit of giving the ball to a team who seemed capable of keeping it and also, perhaps, doing something deadly. It is in such a game as this that the manager earns his money and justifies his reputation. Wenger's place in football has always rested on his ability to shape performances and lift talent, to create an inherent belief in his way.

The need for him to embrace that imperative had perhaps never been greater than in last night's countdown, and this was evident enough as Henry and the boys came purposefully to the little, brightly painted stadium set in narrow, Legoland streets.

Arsenal, plainly, had to match that mood out on the field. They had to exert the force that had swept Real Madrid and Juventus aside. They had to embrace their destiny. But Arsenal faces were enigmatic, intent when the action unfolded - as well they might have been.

For Sol Campbell, more than even Henry, this was surely a great crossroads of his career. Retreating from a match with West Ham United was one thing. Here, such a withdrawal would amount to turning his back on the mountain top - the kind of prize that he said he was pursuing when he inflamed Tottenham Hotspur's following by going down the road to Highbury all those years ago.

Campbell survived the game with nothing more embarrassing than a couple of panicky clearances and in the end, given the length and the circumstances of his lay-off, his performance was one of rescued honour.

In all of this the Villarreal playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme was able to operate in large tracts of free space as Cesc Fabregas again felt the tug of youthful nerves and inexperience. Riquelme had to be closed down if Arsenal were to survive; Riquelme and the whole idea that the hitherto largely anonymous men in yellow had any right to loom so large on the road to Paris.

But still the yellow submarine nosed with menace in Arsenal's turbulent waters. In the 64th minute it came close to sinking the increasingly fragile belief of Wenger's men, Diego Forlan blazing above an open net after Lehmann had been drawn off his line to punch away, uncleanly, a high ball.

However, that indiscretion by Lehmann was just the prelude to personal glory - the last desperate gesture of a long but successful retreat. In Paris maybe the Arsenal blood will be stronger. After last night that has to be more than a hope. It has to be a prayer.