Never have the penalty-saving heroics of a German goalkeeper been such a cause for joy in so many English hearts. Jens Lehmann has been the eccentric, the aggressor and at times just plain unreliable at Arsenal but his save from Juan Riquelme last night simply makes him a hero. The most epic journey of their lives will end for Arsenal on 17 May in Paris and the European Cup final.
This season is heavy with moments that will define Arsenal's future - the end of Highbury and Thierry Henry's decision over his future. For too long the club have simply waited upon these epochal moments; last night they seized control. It was far from the best performance by Arsène Wenger's side in this competition but they hung on against Villarreal and, when it mattered, in the 88th minute, Lehmann's nerve held heroically.
It is worth starting with those events two minutes from the end, because it was there that the whole course of Arsenal's season changed. When the substitute Jose Mari received the ball in the area he was barely touched by Gaël Clichy but crumpled none the less and his tumble was enough to convince the Russian referee, Valentin Ivanov, to make a decision of enormous consequences.
Lehmann had clashed frequently with the striker Guillermo Franco during the match and as Riquelme waited with his hands on his hips, the German advanced to delay the taking of the kick and spoke to his opponent. Riquelme hit his shot to the left of the goalkeeper, without conviction and when Lehmann dived to push it out, the Argentinian playmaker appeared so shocked that he failed to react to the rebound that was swept out of the area.
Pure football nirvana for the Arsenal support. The sense of destiny that has pursued Arsenal past Real Madrid and Juventus in the previous rounds seemed to be fulfilled again. Will this be enough to keep Thierry Henry at the club? Perhaps not if Arsenal play as defensively as they did last night, with a reticence to attack that left their captain isolated and increasingly tetchy at the lack of service that came his way. He had been afforded a starring role in both previous knock-out rounds - last night at El Madrigal, Lehmann upstaged him.
As Highbury winds down to that emotional day when the old stadium locks its doors for ever on 7 May, as every word from Henry on his future is deconstructed for hidden meaning, the form of Lehmann has been a triumph that has gone largely unnoticed. His third season has been his very best. Trust Germany's top goalkeeper to come into penalty-saving form in a World Cup year.
Either Milan or Barcelona, playing tonight, will await Arsenal in Paris - and Wenger conceded it will take a better performance than this to beat the winner of that match. Cesc Fabregas was not the dominating figure he has been in the past and Clichy, on as an eighth-minute substitute for Mathieu Flamini, struggled down the left wing against the full-back Javi Venta. Sol Campbell, thrown back into the side, was shaky but, despite being hit by an object from the crowd, held on.
Riquelme's penalty miss will go down in the history of this little ceramic-producing town as the moment they were denied their moment of glory. But the second-best chance fell to Diego Forlan in the 64th minute. At home Sir Alex Ferguson may have kicked his coffee table in frustration as the Uruguayan striker steadied himself and then, as he did so many times at Old Trafford, hit his shot wide.
For a period of the first half it did not look as if Arsenal were about to keep their 10th consecutive Champions' League clean sheet. Campbell belted a pass into touch and Clichy struggled to adapt to the pace of the game. Javi Venta, the home side's right-back, dashed in to hit a low ball across the face of the goal that eluded Juan Pablo Sorin. Next time he broke free, Franco got his head to the ball and Lehmann was forced into an excellent save.
The second half had not kicked off when a spectator sprinted half the length of the pitch, peeling off his shirt as he went to reveal a Barcelona jersey adorned with Henry's name and his famous No 14. Before he was carted off, the intruder was able to wriggle out of the shirt and thrust it into the hands of Henry, who tossed it to the floor immediately. It did nothing to improve the Frenchman's mood.
There was more torture down the left wing for Arsenal and Clichy. Javi Venta escaped twice in the first 10 minutes of the second half to cross for Franco. The first time he leapt impressively to head wide, the next he slipped ahead of Campbell but could not direct an awkward bouncing ball under the crossbar.
Had Riquelme found the back of the net with his penalty an exhausted Arsenal would scarcely have been able to clamber back to their feet for extra time. But as the seconds ticked by, Wenger said he could feel the pressure mounting on the Argentinian. Say what you like about Lehmann, but he does not lack confidence and when the moment arrived he made the most important decision of his career to dive left.
In the closing stages, Henry broke free for the first time but could not beat the goalkeeper Mariano Barbosa. This was, after all, not a night dominated by Arsenal's brilliant captain. That occasion, you suspect, lies ahead for him in Paris - where he returns to the city of his childhood to play the game that might yet be his legacy to Arsenal.
Villarreal (4-3-1-2): Barbosa; Javi Venta, Pena, Kiki Alvarez, Arruabarrena (Roger, 81); Josico (Jose Mari, 62), Senna, Sorin; Riquelme; Forlan, Franco. Substitutes not used: Viera (gk), Cesar Arzo, Guayre, Hector Font, Rubio Gomez.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Lehmann; Eboué, Touré, Campbell, Flamini (Clichy, 8); Gilberto; Hleb, Fabregas, Ljungberg, Reyes (Pires, 69); Henry. Substitutes not used: Almunia (gk), Diaby, Van Persie, Song, Djourou.
Referee: V Ivanov (Russia).Reuse content