Seven wonders that made Euro stars out of Arsenal

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The Independent Football

It was always billed as the season of transition for Arsène Wenger - although no one believed that the transition would take four months and by the time it was complete Arsenal would have a place in the European Cup semi-finals. From eighth in the Premiership, and a run of three straight defeats in mid-December to the elimination of Juventus on Wednesday night, the Arsenal manager has presided over change on an enormous scale and at a bewildering speed. What appeared at one stage to be the only team he had left to play, has turned out to be the side he always wanted.


Emmanuel Eboué turned up at Turin airport after Wednesday's match wearing Alessandro Del Piero's Juventus shirt, the perfect spoils of war for a 22-year-old who has played only 26 games for his club but has built a case to be shortlisted as the young player of the year. His development has had more impact because he emerged from anonymity but there are others too. Mathieu Flamini has gone from a plodding midfielder to a decent left-back, while Philippe Senderos no longer provokes fear in the hearts of his fellow defenders.


Highbury is not the only Arsenal institution that will be consigned to history this summer - the career of Dennis Bergkamp is destined for the same fate. But there has been a distinct lack of sentimentality from Wenger towards his brilliant Dutch striker as time runs down on his career. It may have been the criticism Bergkamp levelled at Wenger for selling Patrick Vieira but there seems to be no happy ending in sight for the 36-year-old. Also being edged towards the exit are Robert Pires and Sol Campbell.


Henry says that a solution to the Achilles tendon problem that plagued him for 18 months has given him greater freedom but it also seems that a cloud has lifted - Henry is back to his extraordinary best. His first-half flick and turn that left Gianluca Zambrotta with just himself for company on Wednesday had an immediate effect on the entire Juventus back four. They became preoccupied and, although an Italian defence would be loath to admit it, almost intimidated by Arsenal's captain.

Henry needs only to step into the tunnel these days for defenders' hearts to thud a little quicker. He still demands the odd impossible pass from team-mates, and he is still the daunting standard that none of them will ever reach, but his reputation precedes him to such an extent now that opponents are committing precious resources to containing him. Playing in the final in his home town of Paris on 17 May would, Henry said, "be a great story".

"Everyone knows we can create chances but at one point people were saying that when the games get tough, it's a bit more difficult," Henry said. "But now we make it difficult for the other team and make sure that when we can hit them we do it. We defended well against Juventus and if we had a bit more composure in front of goal we could have scored. But that was not the main aim. I want to go all the way and win the thing. What we are doing with such a young squad cannot be ignored. It is something great."


After last May's FA Cup final, Sir Alex Ferguson seized upon Wenger's decision to play a five-man midfield with derision - and you could hardly blame the Manchester United manager who had been lambasted for negative thinking for doing the same all season. With Arsenal, the system seems to work well in the Champions' League, precisely because Henry's status means he can occupy four defenders without ever looking isolated. "The small things have made a difference," said Freddie Ljungberg. "The way we defended, we have been a lot more compact. With three in the middle we can cover the centre-backs, and it has worked well in Europe this year."


As Jens Lehmann dashed over to Pavel Nedved in order to berate the Czech international - who lay on the turf on Wednesday pretending to be injured to try to avoid his second yellow card - you feared the worst. At 36, the most worrying aspect of the German goalkeeper is still his temperament - it needed 18-year-old Cesc Fabregas to restrain Lehmann - but he has also had his best season for Arsenal. Against Real Madrid, in the second leg in particular, he was spectacular but in the main he has simply provided them with the reliability they have lacked in goal since David Seaman's retirement.


First Zinedine Zidane was conquered in the victory over Real Madrid. Then Patrick Vieira in the first leg of the defeat of Juventus. Next up is Villarreal so just the small matter of Juan Roman Riquelme. On Wednesday night, Arsenal's new playmaker Fabregas could not recall whether he had encountered the Argentine during the time he was a child, and Riquelme senior player, at Barcelona. Come 19 April, Riquelme will know all about the little chap who is the new big man of Arsenal's midfield.


"Maybe people felt I was the handicap," said Wenger after Arsenal finally reached the semi-finals at the eighth time of asking. Beating Juventus in 1999 was, Ferguson said, the moment he knew his team were good enough to win the Champions' League (they won it at the fifth time of asking) and Wenger may be tempted to feel the same. However jaded Juventus might have looked on Wednesday, the ease with which Wenger accounted for the Juve coach, Fabio Capello, means that he is by far the most experienced coach left in the competition.