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No time for Highbury nostalgia

April 19, 2006 17:14 IST

Arsenal will play their last European match at Highbury in London on Wednesday with all eyes firmly fixed on the future rather than looking back wistfully at the past.

Arsene Wenger's men take on Villarreal of Spain in a first Champions League semi-final appearance for both clubs, with a place in the final in Paris on May 17 against AC Milan or Barcelona the tantalising prize for the winners.

Arsenal start as favourites after reserving their best performances this season for the Champions League.

The Londoners defeated Real Madrid and Juventus in the previous two rounds, establishing a competition record of eight successive games without conceding a goal.

Wenger knows that record will come under the severest test from Villarreal, who have done well against English clubs this season, beating Everton in the qualifying round last August and drawing 0-0 home and away with Manchester United in the group stages.

The two teams have been hit by injuries and suspensions.

Wenger is hoping 18-year-old Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas recovers from a foot injury for Wednesday's first leg so that he can unleash the sort of damage he inflicted in the home leg of the quarter-final against Juventus last month when he scored in a 2-0 win.

Arsenal will be without defender Sol Campbell, who is recovering from surgery on a broken nose, and banned Spain forward Jose Antonio Reyes.


Villarreal arrive at Highbury without Argentina centre-back Gonzalo Rodriguez, who will miss the World Cup after tearing ligaments in his left ankle in Friday's 1-0 defeat at Barcelona.

Juan Manuel Pena, a Bolivian international who has been Rodriguez's regular partner in central defence, is missing after straining knee ligaments against Barca. He is also a doubt for next week's second leg in Spain.

Villarreal goalkeeper Sebastian Viera is sidelined due to suspension.

While Arsenal had to battle to overcome struggling West Bromwich Albion 3-1 on Saturday with a full-strength side, Villarreal fielded a virtual shadow team against fellow Champions League semi-finalists Barcelona at the Nou Camp on Friday.

Coach Manuel Pellegrini left playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, leading striker Diego Forlan and influential midfielders Juan Pablo Sorin and Alessio Tacchinardi out of the squad and kept several other first-choice players on the bench.

Defeat at the Nou Camp means Villarreal have won only once in seven games and their best chance of playing in next season's Champions League now lies in winning the competition.

That probably applies to Arsenal too, although the Gunners believe they can still finish as high as fourth in the Premier League and at worst go through to the qualifying stages.

Probable teams:

Arsenal: 1-Jens Lehmann; 27-Emmanuel Eboue, 28-Kolo Toure, 20-Philippe Senderos, 16-Mathieu Flamini; 8-Fredrik Ljungberg, 13-Alexander Hleb, 19-Gilberto, 15-Francesc Fabregas, 7-Robert Pires; 14-Thierry Henry

Villarreal: 25-Mariano Barbosa; 17-Javi Venta, 4-Cesar Arzo, 16-Quique Alvarez, 3-Rodolfo Arruabarrena; 12-Juan Pablo Sorin, 19-Marcos Senna, 18-Alessio Tacchinardi, 8-Juan Roman Riquelme; 23-Jose Mari, 5-Diego Forlan

Referee: Konrad Plautz (Austria)

(Additional reporting by Simon Baskett in Madrid)


Mike Collett
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