Roma 1 (Juan 9) Arsenal 0
(aet, 1-1 agg, Arsenal win 7-6 on penalties)
There will be many that bemoan this performance, who will choose to examine the lack of penetration and pace, point to the lack of clear cut chances created and criticise all the passes that went astray. To an extent, they have a point, but only to a point.
Wenger has always moulded his sides to play free flowing football, and while pleasing to the eye, in recent years he has been oft criticised for a lack of a backup plan. Reputation insists that our silky football is paired with a soft underbelly, swift attacks with leaky defences, and spectacular goals with defensive frailty. The question I would ask is this – given the recent alteration to a more steely approach, why are those who have panned the man for only having one way of playing, now criticising him for changing things?
It is true that over the last decade and a bit we have played sublime football. It is also true that until about five years ago, we were almost as bad as Celtic away from home in Europe. Great nights at Highbury were countered by insipid away displays – I can remember countless matches on the road in the early years of the Champions League when we were easily swept aside. That has been easily forgotten as the Premiership starts to dominate the continental stage.
So although we were far from our attacking best tonight, I find myself incredibly encouraged by the mental strength shown by so many of the players. Roma defended like a true Italian side – once they had taken the lead after Gallas and Toure left a cross to each other and allowed Juan to nip in behind them, they slammed the door, Motta and Riise mountains at the back.
It would have been foolish for us to be too expansive. When Gallas tried, shortly before half time, he was exposed, Clichy was turned, and we were very fortunate not to concede a penalty after he seemed to pull Motta down. So it became about effort, closing down, and trying to thread the needle, which in the end didn’t happen for either side.
Both created one glorious chance. Fortunately for us, Baptista was as clumsy as he was a couple of years ago, badly missing from six yards out and generally having the first touch of an elephant, while at the other end Toure headed over in stoppage time at the end of ninety minutes.
In extra time, no-one ever looked like winning it – both sides had promising moves but they always broke down 30-40 yards from goal, and while some of that was down to slackness (and probably tiredness, to be fair), defences don’t get enough credit for applying enough pressure to force the mistakes.
And so it went to penalties, and we got off to the worst possible start when Eduardo, who I would’ve staked a lot on, saw his spot kick saved by Doni, but Vucinic soon levelled things up by tamely rolling his attempt directly at Almunia, who had slipped into a prone position. It was comically bad.
And then the grit returned, and in fairness, it was evident from both teams. The next eleven kicks were all successful, some more emphatic than others (Walcott in particular was fortunate), before Tonetto blazed wildly over to send us through. He was the fourth Roma player to take a kick knowing a miss would be terminal, and sooner or later someone was going to crack. Credit to all our takers for holding their nerve – they’re a young bunch, and finally Wenger can justifiably talk about mental strength. To be that calm in the cauldron of Rome takes bottle.
I have to say though, if Doni had saved any of our last four penalties, I would hope they would’ve been retaken – he was leaping ridiculously far off his line a good second before the kicks were being taken. As it turned out, he didn’t, and through we went.
And at the end of the day, that is all that matters. This is cup football, and all that counts is going through. We know we can play better, we know we will play better. It is good to know we’ll get that chance.
That was tense. But wasn’t it great in the end?