They are the last English survivors in the Champions' League and Arsenal stayed alive through the most thrilling goalless draw that Highbury can have witnessed in its 93 years. The myth of Real Madrid's galacticos policy was shattered, with its most famous names jostling each other to escape down the tunnel first beaten by Thierry Henry and an exceptional Arsenal side, who defended their first-leg lead with a relentless commitment to attack.
It was a game that soared to the heights that were never reached by Barcelona and Chelsea at the Nou Camp on Tuesday, a compelling battle between two clubs to validate the principles on which they operate, with Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos attempting to outrun the fading of their formidable powers, one last desperate attempt to vindicate the folly of the galactico years. Then there was Arsène Wenger's side, reinvigorated once again by youth and the exceptional performances of Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Eboué: a reciprocation of the faith their manager has shown in them.
Towering above them all was Henry, contributing another performance of colossal power and leadership. The goal he scored in the Bernabeu seemed to have scarred the Real defence, which swarmed around him when he had possession yet still the Arsenal captain dominated. Against the deposed royalty of European football, there was no doubt which man established pre-eminence last night. Compared to his fellow Frenchman, Zidane was a peripheral, apologetic presence.
Of all those at Real bestowed with galactico status, David Beckham was the most effective, although last night's defeat means that the England captain will now chalk up his third season in Madrid without a trophy. Beckham has joined a team that is surely heading for demolition; last night Henry, for all his doubts over his future, must have believed that this young Arsenal team still have much ahead of them.
It is the third time Arsenal have reached the quarter-finals of the Champions' League in its current format and they have now gone six consecutive games without conceding a goal the competition's record is seven. Wenger could not suppress a smile when he considered the irony of 180 minutes against Real without conceding "with most of our first-choice defence out". He owed it to a defensive performance of staggering confidence and the game of Jens Lehmann's life.
The German goalkeeper's save from Raul on the hour was picked out by Wenger as the turning point. From Beckham's knockdown, the Real captain struck his first shot against the inside of Lehmann's far post and then seized on the rebound. Throwing himself back towards his own goal, Lehmann clawed the ball away as Raul seemed certain to level the tie.
At the final whistle Eboué appeared to be deep in prayer, motionless for the first time all evening. The 22-year-old had marked Ronaldo into anonymity but also, somehow, found the confidence to be one of Arsenal's best attacking players. Only a late block from Raul Bravo stopped him from scoring on 69 minutes.
Last night was also a late blooming for three players who have proved incapable of rescuing Arsenal's season thus far. In the 15th minute Gilberto Silva launched an exquisitely timed tackle on Ronaldo, delicately separating the ball from his fellow Brazilian as he ran through on goal. Freddie Ljungberg's industry even extended to throwing himself in front of a Roberto Carlos free-kick while Jose Antonio Reyes was outstanding.
Reyes struck the bar four minutes from the break after hesitation in front of a long ball by Sergio Ramos had allowed Henry to muscle past the centre-back and head towards goal. Doubling back, he spotted Reyes unmarked on the right side of the box but delayed his pass a fraction too late and the winger's snatched shot struck the bar.
On 75 minutes Henry looked destined to recreate that heart-stopping goal from the first leg, twisting and doubling back from a crowd of four white shirts before planting his shot wide of the post.
Real tried to seize their Champions' League survival right to the end. In the 90th minute, their goalkeeper Iker Casillas was stranded when he sprinted into the Arsenal area for a corner and, with the ball loose, Robert Pires was set free on goal. The North Bank willed his shot from the half-way line towards them, but Roberto Carlos stopped it crossing the line.
The last Real attempt to prise victory from Arsenal was a low Robinho shot that was gathered by Lehmann. When he took his leave of the pitch, Ronaldo did not even give a backward glance at the Real supporters for whom he has so little love. It was impossible not to feel sadness for Zidane, whose touch is still peerless even if his legs did not permit him to travel the distances covered by the brilliant Fabregas. The 18-year-old had won that battle decisively over the two games.
Highbury will stage at least one more European game before the old ground is finally put out to seed in the summer with this new memory to treasure. As Real's new president prepares for a new dawn, Highbury's legacy felt far more valuable than the undistinguished last stand of Real Madrid's galacticos.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Senderos, Flamini; Hleb (Bergkamp, 86), Fabregas, Gilberto, Reyes (Pires, 67); Ljungberg; Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Diaby, Song, Walcott, Djourou.
Real Madrid (4-1-3-2): Casillas; Salgado (Robinho, 83), Ramos, Bravo, Carlos; Gravesen (Baptista, 67); Beckham, Guti, Zidane; Ronaldo, Raul (Cassano, 73). Substitutes not used: Lopez (gk), Helguera, Cicinho, Diogo.