Arsenal 2 Juventus 0: Fabulous Fabregas casts Vieira and Juve into the shadows
Wednesday 29 March 2006
Beaten, outplayed and booed by the Arsenal fans to whom he gave nine years - the final humiliation for Patrick Vieira last night was a booking that rules him out of the return leg in Italy next week. And to think he left Highbury in a last bid for Champions' League glory - the kind of glory that now belongs to Arsène Wenger's brilliant new generation who find themselves on the brink of the European Cup semi-finals.
In Highbury's last season, the old stadium may have thought it had witnessed the final great European tie of its 93 years after the elimination of Real Madrid, but last night another famous reputation was dispatched in breathtaking style. Juventus finished the game with just nine men after the late dismissals of Mauro Camoranesi and Jonathan Zebina and yet it was a measure of Arsenal's dominance that those red cards were the least of the Italian champions' worries - Wenger's team were sensational.
As Vieira wandered around the pitch he dominated for so many years it was difficult to decide what hurt him the most: the evident delight of the Arsenal fans at his misfortune or that this most painful of defeats was being inflicted by his 18-year-old successor. Cesc Fabregas scored the first goal, he made the second for Thierry Henry and, however much the Spanish teenager shone against Real Madrid, his dominance of Vieira last night felt like a final purging of the theory that this Arsenal team are diminished by the departure of their French captain.
If the performance of Fabregas suggested that, for this young Arsenal player at least, the spell of Vieira has been broken, then the treatment from the Highbury crowd was even more raw and brutal. There was a simmering discontent towards their former captain from the start.
Vieira acknowledged the applause of the few fans who saw him warm up but not when they cheered his name before kick-off. His efforts were met with ever more cynical rumblings until his booking in the 71st minute caused much of the home support to rise in derision. His blank face in the tunnel before the game, the refusal to acknowledge his past in the pre-match press conference on Monday - it is impossible not to think that the occasion of this unlikely return affected Vieira in a way that perhaps even he could not have foreseen. Most critically, this was a deeply unimpressive Vieira performance: he was simply swept aside by Fabregas and the outstanding Jose Antonio Reyes.
In the Stadio delle Alpi next Wednesday it will be a very different Juventus side that attempts to retrieve this tie, one without Vieira, Camoranesi and Zebina but with Pavel Nedved and, most likely, Alessandro Del Piero back in the line-up. Then Arsenal will have the chance to surpass Milan's Champions' League record of six consecutive clean sheets - a feat they equalled last night.
As soon as Arsenal began spreading uncertainty among two central defenders as esteemed as Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram, Highbury sensed that this would be a night to remember. Arsenal attacked with the refined, high-speed passing style that would have been so familiar to Vieira - it stood comparison with the very best football played when he was at the club and he seemed powerless to stop it.
On 40 minutes, just moments after he had tripped Vieira, and offered immediate apologies, Fabregas collected possession from Henry, doubled back and struck a low shot through Thuram's legs that Buffon could only watch as the ball rolled into his net.
It was a crushing blow for Juventus and the crowd's sentiment against Vieira grew in the early stages of the second half. He was fortunate not to be booked for a foul on Reyes before the hour and later, when Philippe Senderos knocked the ball out of his hand during a break in play, the defender was rewarded with a cheer from his fans.
The Italian club had been given warning of Arsenal's second goal in the attacks that came flooding down their flanks after the break. First Reyes, then Fabregas worked the ball out to Henry whose shot was brilliantly stopped by Buffon after an hour. Four minutes later, after Arsenal had deferred the chance to shoot three times, Buffon had to save from Fabregas. Then Alexander Hleb too had a shot stopped.
It was Hleb who played in Fabregas on 69 minutes and the Spanish teenager looked set to score his second before he glanced up and squared the ball across goal. Fabregas had seen what Juventus' defence had failed to notice - Henry in space in the area and, although the pass was behind the Frenchman, one sweep of his leg dragged the ball into his stride before he struck the ball home.
In the frenzy that erupted around Highbury the eye was drawn away from the celebrating Henry and towards a disconsolate Vieira. Two minutes later he committed his second bad foul on Reyes and referee Peter Frojdfeldt was given no option but to book him. This time there was no room for ambiguity in the reaction of the Arsenal supporters. "Who are you?" was a cruel question to ask of him after nine years of service.
In the mayhem that followed, Camoranesi fouled substitute Robin van Persie for his second yellow card and Zebina picked up two quick bookings to follow him down the tunnel. This was becoming one of Juventus' most dreadful nights and even Wenger said he felt his team should have scored a third.
For Vieira - no matter how this tie is decided in Turin - his last visit to Highbury offered the strongest evidence yet that he should never have left.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Senderos, Flamini; Hleb, Gilberto, Fabregas, Pires; Reyes (Van Persie, 82), Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Diaby, Bergkamp, Song, Walcott, Djourou.
Juventus (4-4-2): Buffon; Zebina, Cannavaro, Thuram, Zambrotta; Camoranesi, Emerson, Vieira, Mutu (Chiellini, 71); Trezeguet (Zalayeta, 78), Ibrahimovic. Substitutes not used: Abbiati (gk), Kovac, Balzaretti, Blasi, Giannichedda.
Referee: P Frojdfeldt (Sweden).
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