ARSENE WENGER’S new generation of young and, prior to this season, largely untried players are maturing rapidly against the backdrop of the quarter-finals of Europe’s premier club tournament.
For the first leg encounter, Juventus were the guests at Highbury. The Italian champions featuring former Arsenal favourite, Patrick Viera, are set to take yet another domestic title, shrugging off the challenge of Werder Bremen in the last round. In contrast, the Gunners have had an indifferent league season, but defied all the odds to eliminate mighty Real Madrid to reach this stage of the competition.
Last week Juve’s superstars, boasting over 600 caps between them, were put to the sword at Highbury. Emerging talents such as Mathieu Flamini, José Reyes, Philippe Senderos, Robin van Persie, Kolo Toure and above all Cesc Fabregas ran the ‘Old Lady’ ragged. Italian exasperation was epitomised by the late sending off of both Mauro Camoranesi and Jonathan Zebina.
Add to the youthful Arsenal ensemble the deadly experience of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Jens Lehmann in goal, and Arsenal proved irresistible. Shortly before the interval, Henry found Fabregas, the young Spaniard coolly beating Buffon in the Juventus goal from the 18-yard line. In the 69th minute, the 18-year-old repaid the compliment, squaring the ball to Henry, who finished with aplomb. The 2-0 final score still flattered the visitors, who will have found it hard to turn the tie around in Turin against Arsene Wenger’s young guns in this sort of mood.
In Lisbon, 62,000 optimistic Benfica fans packed out the Estádio da Luz for the visit of title favourites Barcelona. The partisan crowd squarely laid the blame for two missed opportunities at the feet of English referee Steve Bennett, but, in reality, the Portuguese champions were fortunate not to face a three or four-goal deficit ahead of their trip to the Nou Camp for the second leg. Samuel Eto’o missed an open goal, Henrik Larsson and Mark van Bommel were both denied by the woodwork, and Andres Iniesta was only thwarted by a superb Moretto save. In return, the Eagles managed a solitary Geovanni chance, which was blocked by Motta, although later video evidence showed that the Spanish defender had handled the ball. Barcelona will not have been in such a benevolent mood back in front of their own fans, and Benfica’s European adventure seems to be over.
Elsewhere, Inter Milan allowed visiting Villarreal to take the lead through Diego Forlan after only 56 seconds, but the Italians struck back with two goals from Adriano and Martins to finish ahead on the night. Neighbours AC Milan travelled to Lyon, and came away with a goalless draw that sees them in pole position for the return leg. The best chance of the match fell to former Benfica and Chelsea player Tiago, but his powerful drive was tipped over by Dida in the Lyon goal.