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Arsenal takes 1-0 lead over Villarreal in semis

Kolo Toure scored the lone goal, giving his side a huge boost in its quest to reach the final of the competition.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2006 12:17 IST

Kolo Toure scored the lone goal on Wednesday, giving Arsenal a 1-0 win over Villarreal in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals and a huge boost in its quest to reach the final of Europe's top club competition for the first time.

After dominating with a half-dozen chances, Arsenal took the lead in the 41st minute at Highbury when Toure scored his first goal of the season.

The goal came after Thierry Henry's corner was deflected out of the area. The Frenchman regained the ball and found Alexander Hleb with a deft pass, and the Belarussian then chipped the ball to Toure, who slipped it behind Villarreal goalkeeper Mariano Barbosa from close range.

FC Barcelona, the favourite to win the trophy on May 17 in Saint-Denis, France, took a 1-0 lead on Tuesday after beating AC Milan in the first leg of the other semifinal. Both second legs are next week.

"The next six days really define our season," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. "We are confident we can do it." Wenger called it a "good result," but said the club would go to Spain next week and attack.

"I feel there was a goal more in the game for us," Wenger said. "We had some very good situations we didn't take advantage of. I believe it is a good result, but we will know after the second game."

Arsenal pressured early and had several scoring chances against a stout Villarreal defense, with both teams playing in the semifinals of the Champions League for the first time.

"We didn't really find our flow in the second half," Wenger said. "We found it difficult to dictate our leadership in the middle of the park."

Henry appeared to score in the 12th, but the play was ruled offsides on a close call. Villarreal's best chance in the half came when Juan Ramon Riquelme ripped a 25-meter (yard) free kick into the arms of Arsenal 'keeper Jens Lehmann.

Arsenal escaped a penalty late in the first half when Gilberto brought down a Villarreal player in the area.

"I wasn't happy because there was a penalty today that we should have had," Villarreal coach Manuel Pellegrini said. "I don't think we played particularly well, but it's a scoreline that is not too bad. We can get a good result in Spain and go through." Henry almost put the game away in the 56th, but his shot from inside the area _ which appeared headed for the net _ was cleared off the line by Cesar Arzo.

Henry again could have made it 2-0 in the 70th as he slipped a perfect cross into the area, but found no one to deflect it. Seconds later, Gilberto sent a 25-meter (yard) shot into Barbosa's arms. Asked if Arsenal was nearly into its first final, Henry backed off.

"We have nothing so far," Henry said. "We are 1-nil up, but they really made it difficult for us."

Villarreal forward Diego Forlan said the penalty for Gilberto's foul on Josi Mari should have been called, but he acknowledged Henry's early goal that was called back probably should have counted.

"We didn't play well and that's why we lost," Forlan said. "We need to score and not let them score _ and it's not going to be very easy. We tried to do our best and we could not get forward." It was the ninth straight Champions League game in which Arsenal has not allowed a goal. The club broke the old Champions League record of eight straight in the second leg of the quarterfinals against Inter Milan.

The match was Arsenal's final European appearance at Highbury stadium, which will be replaced next season by a new 60,000-seat stadium a few blocks away in north London.

Although six British teams have won Europe's No. 1 trophy, no team from London has ever won it. Liverpool is the leader with five titles, including last season.

The match was held up briefly in the first half when a squirrel that had scampered around the Villarreal half as Arsenal attacked was ushered off the field to crowd chants of "there's only one squirrel."

"He was quite fast and dribbling," Wenger said.

First Published: Apr 20, 2006 12:17 IST