Riquelme's flashes of class warn Gunners

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He was last on to the pitch, his arrival so late that he missed the Champions' League anthem as the teams lined up. For Juan Roman Riquelme it was a statement of the languidness of his style - or another example of his desire that events should unfold at his pace. Or maybe that he was just a little too laid-back for the frenzy that ensued.

The Argentinian playmaker - or "quarterback" as Arsène Wenger would have it - had rightly been identified as the Villarreal player to pose Arsenal the greatest threat although, as is his wont, Wenger had stated there was no need to man-mark even so potentially dangerous an opponent. Arsenal would do things their way.

So instead they simply tried to play at such a speed that Riquelme was a by-stander. He certainly started as a pedestrian. Cesc Fabregas, the closest Arsenal equivalent in terms of creative duties, was sharper in the challenge, quicker to the ball, surging away from a static Riquelme, who was often yards off the play, while Gilberto Silva found the demands of containment easy. So easy that he was able to push forward.

Three times Riquelme, almost playing as a third striker, was crowded out. Three times he appealed vainly to the referee. He could beat one challenge but often he was doubled, or trebled, up. He changed his boots. And with the new footing, Villarreal gained a foothold in the contest. A fierce free-kick, low and hard, which Jens Lehmann eventually held, and then a wonderful clipped pass to Diego Forlan which left Kolo Touré floundering.

It was a ball similar in execution to Ronaldinho's 24 hours earlier that led to Barcelona's winning goal against Milan and Jose Pekerman, the Argentina coach, has compared the two players. Indeed, Pekerman has gone so far as to say that Riquelme would be known as "Riquelminho" if he was Brazilian.

That may be a deliberately inflammatory comment given the rivalries between the two nations and the primacy given to the skills of Brazil, but it is hard to exaggerate Riquelme's importance to club and country or the rarity of his talents. For Villarreal, he is key. They have built their team around him providing him with the platform to perform. When he plays, they play. Last season Riquelme picked up 13 man of the match awards, scored 14 goals and provided 15 assists. Of the 10 games he has missed this season Villarreal have lost eight.

As half-time approached there was another example of the potency of Riquelme's free-kicks. This time it was higher, but equally powerful, and Lehmann could only push it out unconvincingly.

His frustration spilled when Villarreal were denied a penalty when Jose Mari was challenged by Gilberto. Riquelme was booked for his protestations and subsequently booed by the Arsenal fans. They also recognised his simmering threat which was all the more worrying given the slenderness of the lead.

Still Gilberto stuck to his task, with aggression, often finding himself as a third central defender as Riquelme pushed further forward. It is a task the Arsenal man will have to stick to with even more diligence in next week's return leg. Riquelme will then be back in his own domain. The warning signs are there.

Comments