James Lawton: Wenger still on course but Villarreal show they have the ability to gatecrash final party

Click to follow

Against the great names of Real Madrid and Juventus, Arsenal's game sang with a sweet simplicity. So perfectly did they express the values of Arsène Wenger, you could understand his haunting comment this week. "I will leave a little of my soul at Highbury," he declared.

Last night Wenger's preoccupation had to be not with his soul but his heart - and the possibility that it would be broken in pursuit of a place in next month's Champions' League final in the Stade de France.

That hauntingly beautiful prospect, a potentially climactic and almost surreal statement about 93 years of football at the old ground that so often touched the stars as it spread itself across the football ages, suffused the moist spring night. But there were times when Wenger, so exhilarated by the dissecting of Real Madrid and Juventus, surely feared that with such thrilling anticipation there also came a killing pressure.

Nor did it help that if Villarreal carried none of the cachet that has long been the property of Real and Juventus, the great teams of Spain and Italy, they certainly had a method and a durability that was rarely visible in the performances of their alleged betters. Indeed, when the relentlessly committed Kolo Touré - arguably Arsenal's player of a season of at times violently shifting fortunes and hopes - scored in the 41st minute, you could feel the great surge of relief that must have spread across a sizeable stretch of north London.

Until a fierce combination of effort between Thierry Henry and Alexander Hleb overwhelmed a Villarreal defence in which an auxiliary member, midfielder Marcos Senna, had failed to clear a corner from the Arsenal captain, there was a growing sense that Wenger might just be locked into a night of desperate and, historically and emotionally speaking, quite unbearable frustration.

Touré's successful lunge sent the ball beyond goalkeeper Mariano Barbosa to sweep away the worst of those fears, but soon enough it was clear that Villarreal retained a capacity to intrude harshly into the Arsenal dream which had been built so quickly and brilliantly out of eight years of failure in the European theatre. The great Juan Roman Riquelme, who many see as the world's most subtle midfield presence and a prime reason to believe in Argentina's chances in the World Cup, had finished the first half in some unfamiliar disarray. He was booked for passionate claims that Gilberto Silva should have been penalised for bringing down Jose Mari as he burst into the box.

However, Riquelme and his team-mates clearly benefited from a half-time review of the team's basic values by their knowing Chilean coach, Manuel Pellegrini. Villarreal were certainly once again recognisably the team who may have come from nowhere but did so with sufficient force to help wipe out the European ambitions of three of the great names of British football, Everton, Rangers and Manchester United. Now, as Arsenal slaved for the touch that broke the will of Real and Juve, they were threatening something of the same at Highbury.

For Arsenal the experience was, after all the spontaneous brilliance that had ignited their highest ambitions in the previous two rounds, plainly tormenting. So many times they were just a notch away from the easy assurance of those recent triumphs, and no one seemed to be suffering more than the great revelation of the season, teenager Cesc Fabregas.

He ran without a pause, without any hint that he was withdrawing from the dramatic terrain he covered in the destruction of Juventus. But against the Old Lady of Italian football, he was on fire with bite and inspiration - against the young, previously anonymous slip of a Spanish girl Villarreal, he moved between excellence and breakdown at a quite dizzying rate.

With even the great Henry and Robert Pires occupying similar ground, it meant that Wenger's wish for a perfect last statement of Arsenal at night at Highbury was never likely to be fulfilled.

Instead, he had to settle for a performance of passion and commitment against a team which promised resilience, and produced it unwaveringly throughout the game.

Instead of a formal march to Paris and one of the great moments of his distinguished career, Wenger had to grit it out on the touchline and hope that Touré's breakthrough was enough to sustain the team on a night beside the Mediterranean.

He had to be thankful that while the great talents he has nurtured so diligently failed to decorate Highbury one last time, there were displays of great character from such as the World Cup winner Gilberto and the utterly relentless Emmanuel Eboué.

In the end, Wenger turned to the old, gifted warrior Dennis Bergkamp. It was the last throw of a man who knew that a dance of glory in Paris in the spring would not come easily - if it came at all.

Comments