Villarreal v. Arsenal
First Leg: 7 April 2009 – Estadio El Madrigal, Spain
Second Leg: 15 April 2009 – Emirates Stadium, England
A lot has been made of the Liverpool/Chelsea Champions League rivalry, or even the Manchester United/Porto rivalry. However, Arsenal and Villarreal have a bit of history as well. It was during the 2005-2006 Semi-Finals when then-Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann saved Juan Román Riquelme’s last-minute penalty shot to send the Gunners to their first-and-only Champions League Final. Since that time, neither club has been back to the Semis, so it’s appropriate that they’ll face each other for the right to move on.
To make things more interesting, former Gunner favorite, Robert Pires, will make his first trip back to the Emirates since leaving for the Yellow Submarine after the Champions League Final in 2006. It won’t be a happy reunion, though, as Pires is still angry with Arsene Wenger for substituting him out of that match after Jens Lehmann picked up an early red card. Pires would like nothing better than to knock his former club out of the Champions League.
It’s going to take some work, though, as Villarreal have been an underwhelming, albeit solid club. They took out Panathinaikos in a Round of 16 clash that was much more competitive than most people anticipated. They’re a distant fourth in La Liga, however, they’ve only lost once in Europe this season (dropping a 2-0 decision at Celtic in the group stage). They’ve played well against both Real Madrid and Barcelona this season, and held Manchester United to two scoreless draws in the group stage. If they can get some more of that good defense, especially against an Arsenal team that can go cold from time to time, and if Giuseppe Rossi, Santi Cazorla, Pires, and Turkey’s Euro 2008 hero Nihat Kahveci can generate consistent pressure on an Arsenal defense that has been proven to be vulnerable on set plays, then Villarreal could pull off the upset and avenge 2006.
As for Arsenal, they seem to be playing their best football of the season right now and appear to have put their earlier problems behind them. After taking an unusual amount of criticism for everything ranging from his transfer policy to his offense’s inability to score goals, Arsene Wenger seems to be back in the high life again. After four straight 0-0 results in the Premiership, Arsenal have exploded for 10 goals in three matches as they’ve managed to put some distance between themselves and Aston Villa for that precious fourth-place slot. They defeated a determined Roma squad in a shootout in the Round of 16 and will look to build on that success in the Quarterfinals.
New signing Andrei Arshavin seems to be fitting in nicely, skipper Cesc Fabregas is expected to be back in action after the international break (provided he doesn’t miss more time as a result of allegations that he spat at Hull City assistant manager Brian Horton), and Emmanuel Adebayor should be back soon, which will relegate Nicklas “I Should Play Every Minute” Bendtner to the bench. Of course, since Arshavin is cup-tied, he won’t be of much help to his new club in Europe, except as a cheerleader. Still, there’s plenty of talent on this squad without him, and Arsenal have plenty to be optimistic about. That couldn’t have been said a few months ago.
Who will win in this rematch from 2006? Will Arsenal pull out another win? Or will Villarreal get their revenge?
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