He began by shrugging off Ronaldo, and by the time Thierry Henry cracked the winning goal past the goalkeeper Iker Casillas, three more Real Madrid players lay prone on the Bernabeu turf, reflecting on their failure to stop the Arsenal captain and one of the Champions' League's greatest solo goals. Dazzling would be one way to describe Henry's goal last night but that would only begin to tell the story of an extraordinary Arsenal performance and a sweet vindication for their captain.
From Henry's boot came the kind of goal that is supposed to be the preserve of the galacticos of Real, scored by the man whose reputation is that he uses his formidable talent to punish the weak rather than the strong opposition. There could not have been a more stunning demolition of that theory than the goal Henry scored two minutes into the second half, a strike that answered this week's simple request from Arsène Wenger that his most celebrated player rise to such a vaunted occasion.
It is nights like these on which Henry led an exceptional Arsenal performance from a new generation of tenacious young players and Cesc Fabregas, Jose Antonio Reyes, Emmanuel Eboué and Kolo Touré distinguished themselves that will provide the most potent arguments for him to stay. They may only have reached the halfway point in this Champions' League tie but Wenger's team have already made history as the first ever English team although without an Englishman among them to win at the Bernabeu.
Henry described an Arsenal performance in which his team-mates were " not scared to play" and even he had to admit that it was a "long time since I've seen an Arsenal team play like that". "As soon as we are not scared to play good football we can do it and at the back we were tremendous," he said. "What some of the young players did at their age at the Bernabeu was amazing. We have only won one game and we have to stay calm and focused."
David Beckham is not accustomed to life at the margins of matches like these but that was where the England captain stayed for long periods, eclipsed by a full cast of superb Arsenal performances. Playing behind Henry, Freddie Ljungberg embarrassed Thomas Gravesen, and Eboué marked Robinho into anonymity. Most astonishing, however, was the influence that, at 18, Fabregas exerted in the company of Zinedine Zidane. Afterwards, when Wenger came to list the stellar performers he named virtually his whole side.
"I hope the quality our young team has shown will persuade him [Henry] to stay because with this team growing it is important that we have our leader," Wenger said. "You don't want to have a few steps back because maybe our best player leaves. I just think it convinces him he has a future at the club because the boys can produce like this."
He had, Wenger said with a smile, told the world that Henry would " produce" on the night but there was also an admission that the return leg at Highbury on 8 March will be an enormous test for his side. Even on this momentous night, Wenger would admit that his "only regret" was that his team did not take any more of the chances that fell their way. "Real will have to come out and attack [at Highbury]," he said, "and that means it will be an interesting game."
From Real there was performance of bewildering indifference from Ronaldo who, after his protestations this week, gave the Real fans no more reasons to love him than before last night. Jonathan Woodgate, playing in only his 14th game of the season after being plagued with muscular injuries, limped off after eight minutes and could face a month on the sidelines. "It's devastating for him, but I don't think it's a major strain, I think it's his hamstring again," Beckham said.
As the only Englishman left on the pitch, Beckham had his first moment of importance came on 26 minutes when he placed a header wide of the post.
"Freddie was all over the place," was Henry's assessment of his Swedish team-mate and in the first half it was hard to disagree. He was the pivot of an Arsenal team that was not quite the smooth, passing machine they were two years ago, but a gritty unit of resistance. Within two minutes, Henry slipped a ball inside Cicinho that Reyes collected down the left before striking a shot that Casillas pushed out with one hand.
Henry went close with a header and Ljungberg went round Casillas only to be stopped by Roberto Carlos the chances that came their way seemed destined to be passed up. But Jens Lehmann proved unbeatable, keeping out a first-half shot from Beckham after Philippe Senderos had lost possession. A stinging free-kick from Roberto Carlos was also beaten out by Arsenal's German goalkeeper with three minutes of the first half remaining.
Henry's goal came less than two minutes after the start of the second half and it might just prove to be the simplest assist that Fabregas ever claims. The Spanish midfielder rolled the ball a few yards to his captain who outmuscled Ronaldo, and set off towards goal. First Alvaro Mejia, then Guti and finally Sergio Ramos threw themselves in Henry's path and failed to stop either ball or man.
He grew in confidence just as his pace accelerated, and by the time Henry reached the area, Ramos hanging on his shoulder, his finish, angled back across Casillas, felt inevitable. It was a fearsome blow to a club who would like to believe they have trademarked excellence. "I had to take one chance," Henry said. "We wasted some chances and I told myself I would have to take my chance."
Raul came on and Beckham's influence grew, but Lehmann stood firm and Arsenal's Abu Diaby and Robert Pires both missed chances. "Adios", the Arsenal fans sang to the departing home fans in the game's closing stages, left themselves to ponder how a side not good enough to beat Bolton or West Ham could create a night of history like this.
Real Madrid (4-1-4-1): Casillas; Cicinho, Woodgate (Mejia, 8), Sergio Ramos, Roberto Carlos; Gravesen (Baptista, 76); Beckham, Guti, Zidane, Robinho (Raul, 63); Ronaldo. Substitutes not used: Cobeno (gk), Salgado, Cassano, Diogo.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Senderos, Touré, Flamini; Hleb (Pires, 76), Gilberto, Fabregas (Song, 90), Reyes (Diaby,80); Ljungberg; Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Walcott, Djourou, Lupoli.
Referee: S Farina (Italy).
Arsenal break Bernabeu spell
Before last night Real Madrid had faced English opposition eight times in European competition at the Bernabeu and never lost
11 APRIL 1957 Real Madrid 3 Manchester United 1 (European Cup, semi-final 1st leg. Agg: 5-3)
15 MAY 1968 Real Madrid 3 Manchester United 3 (European Cup, semi-final 2nd leg. Agg: 3-4)
3 OCTOBER 1973 Real Madrid 0 Ipswich Town 0 (Uefa Cup, 1st rnd 2nd leg. Agg: 0-1)
5 NOVEMBER 1975 Real Madrid 5 Derby County 1 (European Cup, 2nd rnd 2nd leg. Agg: 6-5)
20 MARCH 1985 Real Madrid 0 Tottenham Hotspur 0 (Uefa Cup, qtr-final 2nd leg. Agg: 1-0)
4 APRIL 2000 Real Madrid 0 Manchester United 0 (European Cup, qtr-final 1st leg. Agg: 3-2)
6 MARCH 2001 Real Madrid 3 Leeds United 2 (European Cup, group stage)
8 April 2003 Real Madrid 3 Manchester United 1 (European Cup, qtr-final 1st leg. Agg: 6-5)
Nelson were the first English club to win at Real. The then Second Division side won 4-2 in a 1923 friendly at Real's former ground.Reuse content