Arsenal are in the last four of the European Cup for the first time in their history, Real Madrid and Juventus have been dispatched along the way, and yet last night the Italians did their best to make it a strange anti-climax. It was another Arsenal performance of maturity and control, but Thierry Henry was not forced into summoning one of those career-defining performances and Jens Lehmann had precious little to do. Aston Villa may have shipped five against Arsenal on Saturday but at least they seemed to care more than Juventus.
Villarreal, the new force in Spanish football, await Arsenal in the semi-final, Milan and Barcelona will contest the other place in the final in Paris on 17 May and none of them have a defensive record like Arsène Wenger's team. Their eighth consecutive clean sheet last night is a Champions' League record and Kolo Touré is fast becoming one of the most accomplished defenders in Europe. Those home fans left in the Stadio delle Alpi at the end were applauding the away side rather than Juventus.
Pavel Nedved's dismissal in the 77th minute was a footnote to the game, although he had been one of Juventus's more committed players. More poignant was the song that rang out clear and loud from the away end. It was directed at Patrick Vieira, suspended last night, and, to the tune with which Highbury once lionised him, their support mocked the former Arsenal captain's decision to change clubs last summer in the cruellest possible terms.
As he headed home last night, the nine-point lead that Vieira's Juventus have at the top of Serie A must have felt like scant consolation. In the first leg Arsenal vanquished Juventus with the swashbuckling attacking football that Vieira will remember well from his best years at the club. Last night Wenger's side contained and out-played their opponents like seasoned veterans of European football. They are, of course, nothing of the sort but players like Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Eboué appear to have crammed a career of learning into one season.
Against Real Madrid at Highbury, Arsenal's goalless draw took its place in the canon of great European encounters, last night they waited for the backlash from Juventus which never came. It stood as a triumph to the planning of Wenger, who may have succumbed to West Ham and Blackburn among others in the Premiership this season but outmanoeuvred Fabio Capello with barely a hint of strain. It took an effort to remind yourself last might that the listless home side were so far clear at the top of Serie A.
There were the occasional flashes of sublime touch from Henry but last night was a reminder that there is a new back four at Arsenal that stands comparison with the best the club have had. In midfield Wenger chose to leave out Robert Pires in favour of Freddie Ljungberg and, like most of his decisions in this campaign, it was proved emphatically right. At 32, and out of contract in the summer, Pires may feel that his exclusion last night marks the defining moment that ends his Arsenal career.
The Italian job completed by Arsenal was low on moments of real excitement, although the menace of Henry seemed to hang heavy on Juventus for the entire game - even Lilian Thuram was dropped as Capello sought a new way to handle the Arsenal captain. On 20 minutes, Henry collected a Fabregas pass and turned past Gianluca Zambrotta before the Italian international was even certain he had the ball - it was a pity the shot at Gianluigi Buffon was so tame.
Henry's commitment alone in attack made Zlatan Ibrahimovic's contribution all the more desperate. The Swedish striker could barely coax a single pass to a team-mate in the early stages and his refusal to chase a ball into the corner on the hour brought a chorus of boos from the home fans. Alongside him David Trezeguet lunged at one Nedved cross around the hour but was otherwise dreadfully ineffectual.
Mathieu Flamini, booked early on for a foul on Adrian Mutu, could count himself fortunate to stay on the pitch in the closing stages of the first half when he floored Nedved with an elbow, but Arsenal deserved to be ahead by then. Their better chances fell to Gilberto Silva and Philippe Senderos, while Jose Antonio Reyes was booked for time-wasting which means he will not play in the first leg against Villarreal at Highbury.
After Trezeguet's failure to get to Nedved's cross, the response from Arsenal was immediate. They broke up-field and Alexander Hleb chose Fabregas instead of Henry to feed with the ball. In on goal, the Spanish midfielder struck his shot straight at Buffon, who could claim to be Juventus's best player. Nedved had been booked for a foul on Eboué on 68 minutes and his second nine minutes later was deserving of a second yellow card.
It felt like the game should reach a crescendo, instead, with Nedved sent off, it simply expired. Ljungberg had the best chance of the late stages but mis-controlled the ball as he ran through on Buffon. There was not an Englishman among the Arsenal players who left the pitch at the end but it hardly seemed to matter. Wenger's team could have been described as makeshift as this campaign began, as the defining hour draws near it looks ever more like the finished article.
Juventus (4-4-2): Buffon; Zambrotta, Kovac, Cannavaro, Chiellini (Balzaretti, 66); Mutu (Zalayeta, 61), Emerson, Giannichedda, Nedved; Trezeguet, Ibrahimovic. Substitutes not used: Abbiati (gk), Pessotto, Blasi, Thuram, Olivera.
Arsenal (4-5-1): Lehmann;Eboué, Touré, Senderos, Flamini; Hleb (Diaby, 87), Ljungberg, Gilberto, Fabregas, Reyes (Pires, 62); Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Van Persie, Song, Campbell, Walcott.
Referee: H Fandel (Germany).
Arsenal How they rated
Watched by Germany's coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, he pressed his claims to be preferred to Oliver Kahn at the World Cup with excellent handling, and some good saves in the second half. 7/10
Keen as ever to venture forward, he showed no sign of the injury that made him Arsenal's biggest doubt. Frustrated Pavel Nedved into two reckless tackles and a sending-off. 7
Helped Philippe Senderos hold the line well, winning a number of offside decisions. Found David Trezeguet a little more dangerous than in the first leg - but not much. 6
Deserves to continue to keep Sol Campbell out of the side after another solid performance. Ensured another frustrating night for Juve's Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. 7
* MATHIEU FLAMINI
Had to tread carefully after an early yellow card and was walking an even finer line after clattering into Nedved but has performed commendably as third-choice left-back. 6
Settled in now after a difficult first few months in England, he formed a threatening triangle down the right with Eboué and Fabregas. Was conscious of his defensive duties in the second half. 6
Another mature performance without being as outstanding as at Highbury. Fed Hleb and Eboué well down the right and covered well when dropping deeper after half-time. 6
Worked hard in central midfield for an hour, then moved to the left when Jose Antonio Reyes was substituted. Might twice have scored when played through near the end. 5
Quietly efficient sitting even deeper than usual in front of the back four. Broke forward once, at the start of the second half, before remembering his place. 6
JOSE ANTONIO REYES
Some determined running from a position wide on the left, before being replaced by Robert Pires. A booking for time-wasting at a corner means he misses the first leg at home to Villarreal. 5
Some lovely touches, including one sumptuous turn past his marker to shoot at the goalkeeper. Growing into his role as captain, too. 6
ROBERT PIRES (SUB)
Replaced Reyes just after the hour, supporting Fabregas in midfield without breaking forward. 4
(Substitutes after 75 minutes not included)Reuse content