Arsenal 1 (Van Persie pen 37) Roma 0
(Champions League Last 16)
Before the game, a win and a clean sheet would’ve made for the perfect combination, a stylish performance the icing on the cake. But after seeing the match unfold, it is difficult not to feel like it was a chance missed even as those events unfolded before us. The tie could have been over with chance after chance being created and spurned.
But take a step back for a minute, and realise that a 1-0 home win is a terrific result in Europe these days. Yes, we could’ve had more, but had Almunia not made an awesome stop from Motta or if a couple of dangerous situations had turned into a sting in the tail then we would’ve been staring down the barrel. The difference between 1-0 and 2-1 is immense.
Without an away goal as insurance, Roma can’t just attack, leaving themselves open to the counter attack, because one goal for us could finish the tie. Almunia’s clean sheet was the most important thing to come out of tonight, and stands us in good stead for the return leg.
I was expecting a cagey affair, with Roma tight at the back, but with the inexperienced Motta and Loria filling in for injured players, we sniffed a chance. But it turned out that the weak link was neither of the two, it was the experienced Philippe Mexes, who had an absolute stinker.
I remember when Mexes was 19-20, and being touted as the next big thing when he was playing for Auxerre. He looked to have everything – size, speed, anticipation and a good touch, but tonight he was truly awful. Constantly turned, he was often force to resort to fouls, one of which earned him an early yellow, and then eventually gave away the decisive penalty when Van Persie got beyond him yet again. The Dutchman hammered home.
If the performance of the Frenchman surprised me for one reason, that of Eboue shocked me for the complete opposite. In the first half he was on fire, charging around with speed and purpose, laying off clever passes and looking more dangerous than I can ever remember. His critics will probably ignore this and point purely at the sitter he missed in the second half (and it was a sitter), but credit where it is due – he was excellent tonight and deserved the applause he got when inevitably taken off.
The same should be said of Nasri – with Bendtner, and later Vela, deployed on the left and Eboue on the right, Nasri was given the support striker role, but roamed around with freedom and caused absolute havoc in the Roma defence. He was also one of those willing to crack one from 20 yards, and deserved a goal for his efforts. At the very least, he deserves to stay in the middle for the second leg.
At the back, Clichy was back to his energetic best, harrying the Roma players high up the pitch and forcing mistakes, while Sagna was as composed as ever on the other side. The only letdown for Sagna, again, is his crossing – if he can work on that he could be legendary. Gallas and Toure, aside from coming out late for the second half, were largely untroubled, with Gallas especially leading by example. It says a lot that Gallas hasn’t come in for criticism recently – with the media guns loaded at him, waiting for another mistake, it tells you exactly how well the man is playing. Good stuff.
The weak link today, unfortunately, was Bendtner, whose first touch was fairly poor, and whose effort early in the second half was woeful, but before too much criticism is aimed at him, consider that he was better than both of Roma’s star strikers, who are both far more experienced. Totti was again anonymous, while Baptista was the clumsy version of the Beast we all remember.
There is no doubt we could’ve battered Roma tonight, but equally in the last twenty minutes we appeared to tire and could’ve conceded. We seemed to lose a lot of momentum when Song came on for Diaby – suddenly we had less men in their box and the mentality switched to protecting what we had, which was a shame as we had them on the ropes.
But overall, it is a superb result, and we were the only team to win tonight after the other three ties were drawn. First legs are always tight, and playing at home first isn’t helpful. The best you can do is take a lead and a clean sheet out with you, and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
And we’ve done it in style.