Arsenal 1 Villarreal 0: Paris in Arsenal's sights as lights go out on Highbury's Euro nights

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The Independent Football

The lights have gone out forever on Highbury's European nights, but a new destination is now within their sights: the Stade de France and the Champions' League final is a mere 90 minutes away. Kolo Touré's goal is the precarious advantage they take to Spain next week, but all Arsène Wenger requires is one more clean sheet.

There was never the passion and drama of victory over Real Madrid and Juventus but the tension increases as that fragile dream of a Champions' League final becomes ever more real. Wenger's side demolished the confidence of Villarreal in the opening stages, they extinguished the influence of the Argentinian playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme and then, as it seemed nothing would hold them back, a fear crept into Arsenal.

There were times when a single-goal advantage to take back to El Madrigal on Tuesday felt like a poor return but in the closing stages, for the first time since they have started cutting a swathe through Europe, Arsenal lost a little of their attacking rhythm. They held on and it was testament again to the remarkable new defence - who now have nine consecutive Champions' League clean sheets - and a dominant performance from Gilberto Silva.

The elimination of Real and Juventus had been historic nights to compete with anything the old stadium has witnessed and they have created an expectation at Highbury of attacking football without restraint.

That was exactly what the home support were given in the game's early stages. The usual whirlwind of breaks from midfield, the overlapping runs of Mathieu Flamini from left-back and Thierry Henry, elusive and menacing in attack. It would be no insult to Villarreal to say that the most significant incursion into the Arsenal half in the early stages was made by an adventurous north London squirrel who found his way on to the pitch and was in no mood to leave.

By the time the squirrel did bound away in the direction of Gillespie Road, Arsenal had ransacked Villarreal, but without reward. Their chances just seemed to fall to all the wrong people. Touré swept a shot wide after Henry's free-kick was blocked and Philippe Senderos could not keep a free header under the cross bar.

In the 12th minute a pass from Robert Pires divided the Villarreal defence and gave Henry the task of curling the ball into the bottom corner and out of the reach of the goalkeeper Mariano Barbosa. The Arsenal captain is difficult to keep track of at the best of times, although it was a surprise to see the flag raised to rule him offside.

The most demanding task facing Jens Lehmann in the early stages of the first half had been frightening away the squirrel, but, on 43 minutes, he was forced to punch out a Riquelme free-kick that was struck viciously at neck height.

The goal for Arsenal came four minutes before the break and Henry was the architect. Collecting the ball on the left, he waited for Alexander Hleb to burst down the wing before playing him in to perfection. The ball was crossed into a busy area, still full of those who had come up to contest a corner, and was met by Touré for his first goal of the season.

With just minutes left of the first half, Riquelme tested the patience of the Austrian referee, Konrad Plautz, to breaking point protesting a challenge from Gilberto that had caught the Argentinian from behind in the penalty area - the replays showed that Riquelme had a strong case for a penalty. Six minutes into the second half his corner was flicked across the Arsenal area by Juan Pablo Sorin and for a moment the home side looked vulnerable.

It was a rare moment of weakness. The Arsenal midfield five dominated Riquelme and Villarreal and, down the right, Emmanuel Eboué's running began to give the away side serious cause for concern. Breaking down the right at pace in the 57th minute, Eboué had only one target in mind when he looked up to take stock of the options in the area. The 22-year-old struck the ball so hard at Henry, however, that the striker could do little more than deflect it towards the Villarreal goal where Cesar Arzo was able to head the ball away from under his own bar.

As his team wobbled in the closing stages, Wenger introduced Dennis Bergkamp and Robin van Persie, an unusual solution for a team that was struggling to contain their visitors for the first time in the match.

Alessio Tacchinardi was booked and will miss the second leg, which will make a serious difference. If Bergkamp had connected with a late ball at Villarreal's back post, that journey to Spain would have been a lot easier for Arsenal.

Arsenal (4-5-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Senderos, Touré, Flamini; Hleb (Bergkamp, 80), Fabregas, Ljungberg (Van Persie, 80), Gilberto, Pires; Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Diaby, Song, Walcott, Djourou.

Villarreal (4-3-1-2): Barbosa; Venta, Arzo, Alvarez, Arruabarrena; Senna, Tacchinardi, Sorin (Josico, 72); Riquelme; Forlan (Calleja, 90), Mari (Franco, 55). Substitutes not used: Vallejo (gk), Guayre, Font, Caballer.

Referee: K Plautz (Austria).

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