Arsenal 0 - 0 Real Madrid
A fascinating debate was raging in the Highbury press room as I resumed my position at a desk that has become so familiar over the years.
On what could have been the final time we all gathered here to pen a report on a Champions League tie at this historic arena, the great and not so good of the British media were pondering a gloomy picture that was in danger of becoming reality before the second week of March had concluded.
If this was to be the night when Premiership representation in Europe's premier competition was to come to an end, the myth that English football was the dominant force on the continent would be banished for good. It may not come as much of a surprise that one man was being held responsible for the demise of a league that has long traded on its reputation for being the most exciting in the world.
Once the darling of the media, Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho had quickly been transformed into villain-in-chief and the theory being offered was the tactics he has employed to conquer the Premiership has destroyed the magic the English top flight was previously famed for.
Chelsea's inept performance in losing to Barcelona on Tuesday night did little to suggest cream of the English league football is a crowd puller just now, with negative and spiteful gamesmanship winning out over attacking flair, but all of us at Highbury hoped Arsenal would prove that excitement was still alive and well on these shores.
Ignoring the fact that Arsene Wenger's men didn't have a single English player in the ranks wasn't easy, but at least this was a Premiership team who would live and die by their ambitious philosophy. Up against a Real Madrid side who have proved conclusively over the years that their defence is as reliable as a straw fence in a hurricane, this game promised to bring some much-needed joy back into a sport that is being eroded by the angry and bitter approach Mourinho insists on adopting.
The buzz among the English speaking sections of the vast Spanish media pack seemed to centre around Ronaldo, whose future seems certain to lie away from Real Madrid. Naturally, the claim that he will be sealing a mega-money move to Chelsea this summer was floated, but the key decision this evening would be whether he would figure in Juan Ramon Lopez Caro's starting line-up.
That answer was in the affirmative and after just three minutes, the Brazilian pictured in several British newspapers on Wednesday morning with less than flattering headlines about his bulging waistline so nearly answered all his doubters. He should have done better with a close range header when unmarked in the box, but he gave Jens Lehmann a chance to save and he did so with a less than convincing parry at the base of the post.
When Jose Antonio Reyes flashed a shot just wide at the other end moments later, the tie was shaping up to become the feast all of us neutrals lucky to be given a free ticket to watch had hoped for. And from our position high in the East Stand, the home side looked fortunate not to concede a penalty when Gilberto hauled down Ronaldo in the box after 15 minutes.
This was a game that had a delicious flow to it and the chances were coming thick and fast. After the tedium of watching Chelsea try and fail to grind and snarl their way into the Champions League quarter-finals last night, this was a real treat.
Reyes should have swung the tie decisively in Arsenal's direction when he had just keeper Iker Cassilas to beat three minutes before the break, but as he crashed his shot off the bar, you wondered whether he had missed a match point that may not come their way again.
Half-time dawned with news from Anfield that England's European Champions were on the brink of being eliminated at the hands of an unfancied Benfica side, bringing the aforementioned doomsday scenario of a Premiership-free quarter-finals a giant step closer.
It was up to Arsenal to save face, but as this second half developed, so Madrid's influence in this game grew. Raul hit the woodwork before pulling off a glorious save from Lehmann in an extraordinary passage of play on the hour mark and as they snapped into challenges in untypical fashion, you suspected their moment to draw level in this tie was nigh.
The Highbury faithful were voicing signs of concern, but they need not have worried as this celebrated collection of galacticos have sampled their final moment of Champions League glory.
Were it not for a breathtaking save from Casillas after Henry's curling shot 17 minutes from time, this contest would have been over long before it's nail-biting finale, yet no one would wanted to have missed the thrilling conclusion. Featuring a 50-yard shot from Robert Pires that so nearly bobbled into an unguarded goal after Casillas had become a make-shift striker, it was dramatic stuff.
Still, Arsenal fans need not have worried. Their novice defence had enough to hold Real Madrid's superstars for a full 180 minutes and while this match may have finished scoreless, it contained more drama and verve than a dozen Chelsea games strung together.
Wenger could be content that his methods had finally trumped one of Europe's biggest names and he couldn't stop smiling as he faced the media. 'I felt we put together two good performances and this was an example of a great game that finished zero-zero,' stated the Frenchman. 'I have said for many months that this team have great potential and now they are beginning to grow together.
'To keep a clean sheet two full games against Real Madrid with the majority of our defence out injured is a remarkable achievement. They are such a young defence and they can only grow with this kind of performance. From a psychological point of view, beating a side of this quality and reputation can only be good for our mentality.'
|“||Our aim is to represent England with dignity and style and fight as hard as we can to keep this run going. ”|
|— Arsene Wenger|
In what could only be viewed as a snipe at Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, Wenger vowed to restore some credibility to the Premiership. 'This game was a great promotion for football,' he added. 'It was played in a great spirit and that must be good for the game. We are the last Premiership side in the champions League now and we are proud of that. Our aim is to represent England with dignity and style and fight as hard as we can to keep this run going.'
Madrid boss Juan Ramon Lopez Caro knows this was his final Champions League game as Real coach and he moaned about a 'lack of ability to take chances' while giving 'credit to our spirited opponents' as struggled to find positives from the night.
Wenger had stated in his programme notes that 'you the crowd, all have a massive part to play tonight' and the atmosphere was spine tingling throughout.
So the only Premiership left in the Champions League is one that provides joy in the way they play. There may be some justice in that.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Cesc Fabregas
This young man has cone of age in the two ties against Real Madrid and he was exceptional in the Arsenal midfield against his superstar opponents.
FAT BOY WATCH: The theory goes that Ronaldo doesn't fancy playing for Real Madrid any more and anyone present at Highbury for this game will confirm that is true. You may not have picked it up if were watching the game on TV, but the chubby superstar showed a stunning lack of interest throughout.
REAL MADRID VERDICT: This side is an aging experiment that has won it's final trophy and the new regime at the Bernabeu will doubtless see the end of the Galacticos era. Zidane, Beckham, Ronaldo and Raul look well past their best and it is sad in some ways that the dream of assembling the world's greatest superstars together has not produced the magic formula all concerned had hoped for.
ARSENAL VERDICT: With Henry as their leader and a talented pack of terriers scrapping behind him, the Gunners may just be decent dark horses to go close to Champions League glory this season. They are certainly as good as the Liverpool side that lifted the trophy last May.