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I said it during commentary near the end of Wednesday night's Champions League nail-biter at Highbury, and I'm happy to repeat it now. Rarely will you see a better, tastier 0-0 draw than the one Arsenal and Real Madrid served up.

In the interests of coming completely clean, I must concede to having given Arsenal precious little chance before the first leg of their round of sixteen tie. Horrendously erratic form (particularly on their travels) and a spate of injuries made me think they would be blasted asunder by a Real Madrid side, at the time showing distinct signs of improvement under Juan Ramon Lopez Caro.

Then came that wonderfully fluent Arsenal display at the Bernabeu. This was football with a smile: the movement of Henry, Fabregas, Hleb, Reyes and Ljungberg bordering on the poetic.

Nevertheless, the nagging doubts persisted going into the return leg. Based on their stylish performance in the Spanish capital, the tie really ought to have been as good as over. It struck me that the raft of missed chances against a poor Real Madrid side on the night, could well come back to haunt Arsene Wenger's team.

I wondered if Wenger's makeshift and youthful back four would be quite as composed at Highbury.

In the event, it was the players at the back who shone like beacons in the return, every bit as much as their attacking counterparts had dazzled in the first leg.

For starters, let us recognise the immense contribution Jens Lehmann made to Arsenal's qualification for the last eight. Yes, the same goalkeeper who was dropped in favour of Spanish journeyman Manuel Almuinia midway through last season. Not only did the German get everything right positionally speaking, he made fantastic saves when necessary. The breathtaking finger-tip denial of Raul comes immediately to mind.

Above all though, Lehmann should be lauded for being the kind of keeper who prefers to catch the ball, if possible, rather than punch it. On current form, a case can be made that he's now ahead of Oliver Kahn in the German World Cup pecking order.

There can be little doubt that the confidence exuded by Lehmann had a positive effect on back four with an average age of 22.25. Philippe Senderos, often dismissed as the most lightweight member of the Arsenal rearguard had one of his finest matches of the season. Kolo Toure, his central defensive partner, seems to have found a little bit extra in the absence of Sol Campbell.

The full-backs were always going to have crucial parts to play, and again, as at the Bernabeu, Emmanuel Eboue and Mathieu Flamini didn't disappoint. On the narrow Highbury pitch, they had to be extremely careful not to over-commit going forward. Both youngsters got the balance right. Eboue was a fraction more ambitious than Flamini, who after all is a naturally right-footed player, standing in for an immensely gifted left-back in Ashley Cole; in Europe, he's doing so with distinction.

Where does Arsene Wenger find these magnificent young players? He has arguably the best 18-year old in world football, this side of Barcelona's Leo Messi. I'm talking, of course, about the precocious Cesc Fabregas.

Going toe-to-toe with old pros like Guti, Gravesen and Zidane, Fabregas more than embraced the big stage. In fact, he overshadowed his more experienced opponents on the night. Fabregas, with his superb technique and reading of the game is already on his way to replacing Milan's Andrea Pirlo as the pre-eminent deep-lying conductor of the football orchestra.

What a strange old season this has been for the Gunners; one that started with the loss of Patrick Vieira to Juventus; one that will end with the move from Highbury to a brand new stadium, a short walk away at Ashburton Grove.

Not all that long ago when we described Arsenal as 'invincible' and 'untouchable' in the Premiership, they just couldn't find the winning formula in European competition. Now, paradoxically, Wenger's team look better bets against technically orientated continental sides than when confronted with the physical approach of Bolton, Blackburn or Everton.

But who in their right mind would have reckoned this Arsenal team had it in them to record two clean sheets within a fortnight against a free-scoring team like Real Madrid?

I'm beginning to wonder if Arsenal are morphing into this season's Liverpool. The parallels are irresistible. There's even the possibility they could win the Champions League, while finishing outside the top four in the Premiership. Does it remind you of someone else?
:eekani:

While we're at it, with the rules having been changed to accommodate Champions League winners who fail to qualify for the following season's competition through their league position, which team might stand to suffer?

That would be a North London derby 'win' we could all do without!

http://soccernet.espn.go.com/feature?id=361510&cc=5901
 
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