Arsenal to face Villareal : Champions League Draw in full and Toon preview

Well, now we know. Here’s the full draw:
Villarreal v Arsenal
Manchester United v FC Porto
Liverpool v Chelsea
Barcelona v Bayern Munich
First legs 7/8 April 2009    Second legs   14/15 April 2009
Manchester United or FC Porto v Villarreal or Arsenal
Barcelona or Bayern Munich v Liverpool or Chelsea
First legs  28/29 April 2009    Second legs 5/6 May 2009
Final “Home” Team:
Barcelona/Bayern Munich/Liverpool/Chelsea
Final: 27 May 2009-03-20
With the greatest of respect to Villarreal who are an excellent side we couldn’t really have asked for much more. Being drawn to play at home in the quarter-finals and again in the semi-finals if we beat Villarreal is a big bonus I think.
If we do manage to make it through to Rome we’ll almost certain play in yellow and blue. The other semi-finalists have been drawn as the “home” team, which means they get choice of colours in the event of a clash, which there would be in the case of Barca, Bayern and Liverpool. The “home” team also gets the choice of dressing room. I think we’d all live with that if we got through! Another Arsenal v Barca final anyone? I could definitely live with that! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves however.
As the Champions League is the issue of the day, I thought I’d share a couple of stories with you of our visit to Paris for the 2006 for our first ever final in Europe’s senior club competition (the first of many I hope).
I’m sure you all remember the mad scramble for tickets. Even though we were still at Highbury and only had around 24,000 season ticket holders then (nearly double that now at the Grove at around 44,000 including the 9,000 Club and executive box seats). The 24,000 or so allocation we got from UEFA was never going to be enough to go around, especially with Paris being on our door step.
The night before the game my little platoon of the Gooner Nation was in a very pleasant little restaurant on the Left Bank. The food was good, the service amiable and swift, the wine and the conversation was flowing. My mobile goes. It’s a fella from ITV’s breakfast show GMTV. How did I feel about getting a few Gooners to do a live segment from a café on the Champs-Élysées just by the Arc de Triomphe in the morning?  I could almost hear him bracing himself for my expected response when he told me what time he’d want us – 7.20am.
As it happened he caught us at just the right time – we were just on the coffee and cognac after three excellent courses, the cheeseboard and doing our bit for the French wine industry by consuming the better part of a bottle of wine each. We were all nicely lubricated as they say. I asked the assembled company if anybody fancied it – enough said yes to form a quorum. It seemed like a top idea at the time. So many things do with drink taken. I inform the somewhat surprised seeker after truth that we’d do it if a) GMTV would pay for cabs to and from our hotel in Montparnasse and b) they’d make a suitable donation to a charity of our choice in lieu of an appearance fee. All agreed without problem. We were assured that coffee and croissants would await our arrival. £150 for a good cause and a bit of a laugh for us. Job done. I take down the address of the café,  we pay the bill and go off in search of suitable licensed premises for a nightcap. The nightcap turns into a bit of a session. My head finally touches the pillow at about 3.15am.
When my alarm rings at 6.25am, it seems about two minutes after I’ve got into bed. Live breakfast television doesn’t seem like nearly such a good idea. I ring around my mates’ rooms to drag everybody out of bed. This really makes me Mr Popular Happy News. However reluctant and foul-mouthed they were when I aroused them from their happy dreams, only one of the company fails to come under starter’s orders. We are seven rather than the promised eight. The taxis arrive on time and off we go, to be greeted by the presenter at a VERY upscale café and, as promised, coffee and croissants. The croissants are warm and fresh and there’s even butter and jam. Lovely jubbly! We go live for about 7-8 minutes after the news at the bottom of the hour (as we professionals say in the broadcasting world).
The studio in London is so happy with the spot that they immediately ask the presenter in Paris to see if we’d stick around to do another live spot about an hour later. Despite the sleep deprivation, the adrenaline of the dawning day of our first-ever Champions League Final has kicked in. So has the caffine from the café au lait served in giant two-handled cups the size of soup dishes. We agree. I confess that my personal decision to agree to stay also had a lot to do with the heart-breakingly beautiful young Parisienne waitress serving us. Her wonderful laughing smile at the antics of les fous britaniques had made the whole exercise worthwhile for me.
The presenter then decided that we should really do the job properly as we were in Paris.  A  round of large cognacs with the next coffee was proposed. This motion was seconded and passed by acclamation. After all, when in Paris do as les parisiennes do. Cognac with breakfast is a long and honourable tradition in the City of Light. C’est formidable! Suitably fortified, we do the next spot. I give some spiel about being at the Final standing on the shoulders of giants like George Armstrong and David Rocastle who’d tragically both died within a few months of each other. I also got to give a name-check to my old Gooner mate Robbie Strenatti who’d died tragically and suddenly of a heart attack a few months before the Final. We’d shared so many wonderful European trips together with Arsenal over the years. It was so sad he didn’t live to see us reach the pinnacle of European club football.
Success all round. Another round of cognacs to celebrate. Then the presenter asked for the bill. €249! I’m glad GMTV was paying! As we’re up already, the search is then on for four tickets. Eight of us have travelled over from London. We only have four tickets in the bag. The touts are asking €2,000 – minimum. I ruthless exploit every contact I have, spending most of the day doing so. Finally, about 4.30pm my mobile goes. It’s a contact at UEFA. Some self-important knob has dropped out. We can have his two tickets in the VIP area. Thanks mate! I wizz over to the UEFA hotel on the metro and pick them up, agreeing to meet the rest of my lot at the Gare du Nord. We’ve only managed to blag these two, so we have to organise a heart-breaking draw between the four ticketless ones to decide who gets to go to the game and who has to watch it on television.
The two luckless ones do their best to conceal their disappointment and we take the train out to the Stade de France in the northern suburb of St Denis. I and the most sober (in both senses of the word) of my mates take the VIP seats, giving our seats to the other boys. I don’t want to drop my UEFA mate in it by showing out too much. As we take our seats about an hour before kick-off, I spot Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore and then FA chief executive Brian Barwick a few rows behind us. I know both of them through work. They both have puzzled looks on their faces. I can see they’re both thinking, “What’s that fat Gooner bastard doing in the posh seats with us?” This pleases me no end.
You know all too well how the match goes. Mad Jens off early doors. Sol Campbell rises like a young salmon to head us into the lead from a free-kick that never was, giving us a “puncher’s chance” as Henry Cooper likes to say. Th ierry Henry misses a good chance to put us two up at a vital stage. Barca bring on Henrik Larsson, they equalise and go ahead 2-1. I’m being very well behaved, apart from rearing up on one bloke who pushes past me for the fifth time in the match to go to the bloody bar. It really gets on my wires that there are thousands outside without tickets and plums like him get in.
Then, about 8-9 minutes from the end with us looking for an equaliser it all goes Pete Tong. Thierry Henry, back to goal has the ball played up to feet, Barca’s Mexican international defender Rafael Márquez is close-marking him. Henry backs into Márquez slightly. It’s six and two threes, both contesting possession. Márquez goes down likes he’s been hit with a pick-axe handle. The red mist descends. I totally, comprehensively loose the plot. I’m up on my feet, deploying my second language (Spanish) to hurl every obscene epiphet in that wonderfully expressive tongue at Márquez. ¡Levántate, hijo de puta mexicano que sos! ¡Ladron de mierda! ¡No le hizo nada! La concha de tu madre! ¡La puta que te pario! ¡Me coji a tu vieja! Trust me, if you don’t speak Spanish, this is not the sort of language you use in polite company. My mate is desperately trying to pull me back down into my seat as I roar out insult after insult like a demented foghorn. All the Spanish speakers near me are looking round. Who is the foul-mouthed lunatic? Not my finest hour, I freely admit. The late night, the early start, the alcohol and the adrenaline. I was very tired, very fraught and –  definitely – very emotional.
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur. We met up at a bar near Les Halles. I summoned the grace to congratulate a group of Barca supporters. My mates knew when to leave well enough alone. They left me to my own devices, depth charging half litres of beer with large brandies. I was inconsolable.I only hope we have go through the whole experience again, and again. Let me end this bit of all our yesterdays with European Cup/Champions League quiz question. European football’s top club prize has only been won by four teams from their nation’s capital city – name them. Answers on Monday. No conferring now!
Enough of the Champions League until next month. All that matters now is Toon tomorrow in the League. We need three points at St James’s Park big style. We need a ruthless focus on that any nothing else. I make no apologies for saying it yet again – one match at a time.
Keep the faith!

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