ARSENE WENGER believes Rome was the turning point in the development of his latest generation of Arsenal starlets, but their business in the Italian capital may not be complete yet.
A side whose self-belief was, according to Wenger, forged in the white heat of the second round penalty shoot-out victory against Roma, underlined their increasingly impressive credentials last night, notching a victory over Villarreal which was just as emphatic as the scoreline suggests.
Picture-book goals from Theo Walcott and Emmanuel Adebayor, together with Robin van Persie’s penalty, ensured just a second ever Champions League semi-final for the north Londoners and, while Manchester United represent the most formidable of obstacles, Old Trafford will hold no fear for this young side.
There was never any hint that this tie would deliver the sort of riotous entertainment witnessed at Stamford Bridge 24 hours previously, but for once Wenger will feel content at having left the swashbuckling to others.
This, in its own way, was just as impressive as Chelsea’s achievement in out-gunning Liverpool: Villarreal, notoriously nuggety European opponents, were wounded by falling behind and killed off just as they were showing signs of life after half-time.
The Spaniards ended the evening a mess, down to 10 men after Sebastien Eguren’s sending-off for protesting Arsenal’s penalty, and the only player in yellow who could take anything from the night was Robert Pires, who was afforded an affectionate reception by the fans he dazzled for six seasons.
The fans could afford to be generous. Champions League quarter-finals are not supposed to be this straightforward — unless you are Barcelona — and especially not when stripped of four-fifths of your regular defence.
The virus-ridden Bacary Sagna joined Manuel Almunia, William Gallas and Gael Clichy on the sidelines last night, but it is going to take more than tweaked muscles and high temperatures to derail Arsenal.
There are many standard-bearers for the spirit of adventure in Wenger’s class of 2009, but none fly it with more elan than Walcott. The teen has returned from surgery to fix his chronically dislocated shoulder with a reinvigorated body and a shrewder mind. Where once he would charge down cul-de-sacs, oblivious to the options around him and prone to blind panic, now he blends his natural, blistering pace with a sharp attacking brain.
The England star was a menace to a visiting back-line chronically short of pace. It took just five minutes for Joan Capdevila, the Villarreal left-back, to be left gasping as Walcott screeched past him and skimmed a low cross along the six-yard box.
Villarreal were spared on that occasion, but their luck did not hold. Moments later, a hopeful pass from Emmanuel Eboue, filling in seamlessly for Sagna, slid under Cesc Fabregas’ backheel, befuddled Diego Godin and fell neatly into Walcott’s path. He showed the chilly touch of a seasoned striker in advancing on Diego Lopez and chipped over the keeper.
The early blow demolished Villarreal’s composure. Suddenly, it was not just Walcott leaving scorch marks on the lush turf: Adebayor’s muscular presence was traumatising the increasingly erratic Gonzalo Rodriguez, while Lopez was a nervous wreck whenever Van Persie hoved into view.
In the 29th minute, the goalkeeper could only paw away the Dutch striker’s free-kick and Adebayor dashed in to head back towards goal. A gaggle of defenders were on hand to mop up but it was indicative of their nerves that Pires, perhaps imagining he was back in red, almost bundled the ball over his own line before Gonzalo hacked clear.
The La Liga side needed the interval to clear their heads but, despite beginning the second half with more pep and purpose, their rickety back-line proved their undoing. On the hour, they allowed van Persie the freedom of Islington on the edge of the area and, once he teed up Adebayor, there was only ever going to be one result, Adebayor firing into the bottom corner.
Progress was assured nine minutes later when the German ref, Wolfgang Stark, decided Godin scythed down Walcott. Replays suggested otherwise and Eguren, booked in the first half, was shown a second yellow for his protests. Van Persie swept in from the spot, completing Arsenal’s perfect night was complete.
Subs for Arsenal: Denilson for Walcott, Diaby for Van Persie, 77; Bendtner for Adebayor, 83.
Subs for Villarreal: Nihat for Bruno, Ibagaza for Fernández, both 64.
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