Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Gunners shock Los Galacticos

Last night, watching Arsenal steal an away goal at Bernabeau just after halftime, I nearly broke into song, thinking a little "One nil to the Arsenal" would keep Real Madrid from scoring an equalizer in the ensuing 45 or so minutes. Never mind that I was watching a recording of the game; never mind that I had kept myself away from the various football websites I love to peruse during the day, for fear of revealing the final outcome of the game; and never mind the fact that there is one more leg to play with los Galacticos at Highbury before the Gunners will inevitably meet up with another powerhouse and the stress will begin all over again.

Last night's display from Arsenal stands as the highlight of the year for me. Ljungberg's constant pressure, Hleb's nifty one-touch passing, and even Reyes' dominance of Cicinho displayed glimpses of the dynamism that Arsenal has been known for in the past few years. And Henry, a beautiful strike after a bouncing run between defenders, only to sneak one past Iker Casillas, who was only matched by Jens Lehmann in his performance. All that was missing was a late poached goal from Robin Van Persie.

Wenger said after the match that there were no players on the pitch that did not play well, and I have to agree. From the start of the game, Arsenal played the game they've been known for (except for this season in the EPL), attacking early and quickly, pressing enough to dominate most of the first half. Reyes' opportunity to score early in the first minutes set the pace, and it became clear that Madrid were not playing penetrative football; in fact, with Beckham dropping back whenever Madrid gained possession in the midfield, to allow Cicinho to move up in attack, seemed to merely slow down their tempo, allowing Arsenal to fill the gaps w/yellow shirts in defense.

The highlight for me was not the Henry goal, or the numerous chances wasted by Reyes, but the way Arsenal's defense clamped down, despite the more frenzied attacking from Real Madrid. I would have loved to see them press more and grab another away goal, but Wenger chose to play the European game, and did well to meet the arrivals of Raul and Bautista into the game by swapping Pires for Hleb and the attacking Diaby for Reyes.

The truth is that Real did not play well at all, and one can see how they were dismantled so easily in a 6-1 defeat to Zaragoza in the Copa del Rey. If Real Madrid had been firing on all cylinders, high off of their 3-0 defeat of Alaves, it would have been quite a different match. Aside from David Beckham, los Galacticos did not show up. And even Beckham seemed a bit lacking in his finishing, failing to control a long ball into the box that left him in front of Arsenal's goal; moments later he was denied by tremendous leg save from Lehmann after a clever pass from Ronaldo left him unmarked at the edge of the box.

Arsenal fans can only hope this moves Henry closer to staying in North London; perhaps he can believe a bit more that there is heart to this team, albeit young and callow ones. The youth that Wenger brings in is second to none in the Premiership, but Henry is integral to Arsenal's success next year when they move into 60,000 seat Emirates Stadium. One only hopes that this historic game did not stimulate Henry's appetite for competition in La Liga and he will lead this young group of Gunners onto the pitch at Ashburton Grove next year.

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