Emmanuel Adebayor’s brilliant overhead effort cancelled out an equally spectacular strike from Marcos Senna to put Arsenal in a strong position in their UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Villarreal.
Villarreal, keen to erase the memories of their semi-final defeat against these opponents three years ago, started at quickfire pace and took the lead ten minutes in, Senna unleashing an unstoppable drive from 25 metres. Arsenal lost goalkeeper Manuel Almunia and William Gallas to injury before the first half was over, but for the third time in as many meetings the Yellow Submarine could not quite impose themselves on the Gunners, Adebayor’s instinctive effort midway through the second period giving the visitors a priceless away goal to take into next week’s return in north London.
Villarreal were quickly into their stride and soon claimed a goal which would have been fit to win the tournament itself, Giuseppe Rossi drawing sufficient attention to give his captain time and space to collect his short pass. Senna had not scored for more than five months but his aim was unerring, a lethal right-root shot finding the top corner of the net. Almunia was blameless then but his evening was to deteriorate further as, having damaged his right ankle in an early challenge with Rossi, he limped off after 28 minutes to be replaced by Łukasz Fabiański for only his second appearance in the competition.
The visitors had at least had their first glimpse of goal by that stage, Cesc Fàbregas’s weighted pass allowing Samir Nasri the chance to crack in a shot to which Diego López was equal. That aside the first half was one-way traffic, Senna forcing a fine stop from Fabiański two minutes after his introduction with another low drive, the 24-year-old recovering quickly to block Joan Capdevila’s follow-up at point-blank range. Arsenal’s back luck returned, however, Alexandre Song’s foul sending Rossi crashing into Gallas and the Arsenal centre-back subsequently limping off. Sebastián Eguren could have doubled their arrears before the break with a free header from a corner.
Despite their first-half domination, Villarreal began the second period looking nervous. Arsène Wenger pushed Nasri, Fàbregas and Theo Walcott closer to sole striker Adebayor and as a result Villarreal’s back four found their work steadily increasing, the Togolese international enjoying a memorable tussle with Gonzalo Rodríguez and escaping his marker’s clutches for one delightful moment in the 66th minute. Fàbregas had set up Adebayor for two goals against Manchester City FC on Saturday and provided another assist with a flighted pass on to the striker’s chest, the Togo striker beating López with a delightful overhead kick.
Kolo Touré, author of the winning goal the last time the sides met, made a telling contribution again with ten minutes left, sliding in to deny Guille Franco, before Senna sent in another thunderous drive that flew centimetres too high. Villarreal maintain their unbeaten home record in this competition but, as in the last round against Panathinaikos FC, will have to do the hard work away from El Madrigal.