Robin Reliant from the Spot
With the Premiership campaign long since petered out into the realms of disappointing, the Champions League gave us a fresh challenge and a chance to shake loose the cobwebs of our domestic entropy. The visit of I Lupi promised a more expansive game of a higher technical vintage than managed by the likes of Sunderland. There again, Sunderland aren`t privy to £30m worth of Champions League money every season. Arsenal bought in Abou Diaby for Alex Song but lined up slightly differently, with Bendtner playing on the left and Samir Nasri dropping into a central role behind van Persie. The shape seemed to lend something to our fluidity, with Diaby in midfield instead of Song; the ball was coming forwards with greater relish, and Bendtner and Nasri were dropping off into pockets of space. Some might point to the fact that Roma were slightly more adventurous than some Premiership sides have been, but Arsenal`s passing was notably crisper and more incisive, the ball was played at speed and players did not seem to be rocking back on their heels as usual, but poised on their toes. Had we played in this manner on Saturday we`d have comfortably disposed of Sunderland. Even Diaby and Eboue looked exceptional, full of verve and confidence and, importantly, work rate. People often forget, I often forget, how skilful a player Eboue actually is. Expressing those skills comes with confidence and it is probably counter productive for us to damage that confidence from the stands.
It was Eboue who was at the heart of our first move of the game as he played an intelligent ball into Nasri in the right channel, he sauntered towards the by-line and cut the ball back for Bendtner, the young Dane was in front of goal and poised to shoot, but the attention of Mexes made him hesitate slightly and take a touch at the last second, the result was that the touch was too heavy and the chance was gone. Arsenal were starting on the front foot- something we seem to have been immune from doing of late- I mentioned on Sunday that Arsenal have only registered twelve goals in the first half of home matches in the last fourteen months. Samir Nasri looked to swell that figure when he connected with Clichy`s left wing cross, but Nasri took his eye off the ball and headed wide. It left us wishing that Nasri had had Bendtner`s chance and vice versa. But at this level of competition teams will always give you a problem and Roma very nearly opened the scoring when Motta`s shot arrowed towards the top corner, only for Manuel Almunia to produce a world class save to tip it around the post. But the Gunners continued to attack unabated and got their just deserts on 37 minutes. Clichy and Bendtner linked up nicely on the left; Bendtner played a smart through ball to van Persie, who positioned himself between Mexes and Motta and invited the contact to win a penalty. Van Persie stepped up and hit an unstoppable low shot to Doni`s left with the keeper diving the wrong way.
The Gunners nearly moved into a two goal lead just sixty seconds later, van Persie once again taking up a favoured position of his in the channel between full back and centre half, he wriggled to the touchline and put in a low cross which Mexes just got to before Bendtner. Half time and a very satisfying display thus far, controlled and at a good tempo. Toure might have been wearing the armband, but Gallas was marshalling the troops at the back superbly, playing through the pain barrier at times. But the partnership of Toure and Gallas possibly reached its most ridiculous ebb for the second half kick off. With Gallas receiving treatment, Toure was reluctant to come back onto the field due to superstition. The referee insisted Arsenal kick off with nine men and Toure was booked for trying to re enter the field of play without permission. Fair enough on the part of the official, I only wish Premiership referees were authoritative enough to expel this gamesmanship. One`s mind wanders back to a match a few years ago between Chelsea and West Brom when Mourinho deliberately held his side back in the changing room, much to the annoyance of Bryan Robson. Had the referee that day not stood like a gormless twat with his thumb up his arse watching the whole thing, an unsavoury incident might have been avoided.
The confusion left us visibly shaken for the first couple of minutes of the half, but the Gunners again got hold of the game and created an absolutely gilt edged chance on 52 minutes. Eboue again found van Persie in the channel and his cross found Bendtner on the back post; he had time to take a touch but then lamentably lent back and scooped the ball over the bar from close range. Against opposition of this quality, chances such as this are often at a premium and simply must be taken. The chance gave Arsenal a sense of urgency once more and Doni was forced to beat out a low Diaby shot after clever footwork on the edge of the box. Another absolute sitting duck of an opportunity would present itself minutes later. Motta hit a sloppy back pass which Eboue latched onto, and with a clear shot presenting itself for around five seconds and the goal net winking at him, but he again lacked the sangfroid in the eighteen yard area and blasted the ball into the side netting. It was a great shame, because everything about his performance deserved a goal and would have gone a long way to repairing an incendiary relationship with the fans. Though it was notable that he was afforded a standing ovation when he went off. This was no politically correct move out of sympathy/ guilt for the Wigan game, this was heartfelt and sincere. A few more of these performances will see him mend that chasm permanently.
But having not taken their chances and then having lost the impetus and energy of Diaby in midfield, the match changed and Arsenal erred on the side of caution, which was not an unwise move. Last year`s painful exit to Liverpool should have taught them that there is a time for caution in this tournament. Van Persie looked drained upfront and without Diaby driving the midfield, our possession play was not quite so effective. Diaby showed last night what a fantastic player he could be if he tried a little harder. Unfortunately, he also showed his propensity towards injury once more. Roma came forwards, but with the back four expertly marshalled by a revitalised William Gallas and the midfield area patrolled unswervingly by Denilson, the Italians were offering a limited threat. I find it a desperate shame Arsenal fans don`t have the football intelligence to see what Denilson gives us. Had he been wandering around with `16 FLAMINI` emblazoned on his shirt since October I imagine the plaudits would have been rich and varied. I also dare say Flamini would have taken most of the credit for our run of clean sheets in 2009. Denilson is a subtle player whose positioning is faultless. Every time a loose ball breaks in midfield, take a look who is first on the scene. When an Arsenal player has the ball in a cul-de-sac, take a look at the first player on the scene to receive the ball. Unfortunately, supporters only ever tend to notice the midfielder that foams at the mouth and runs around like a headless chicken. It was the reason Gilberto was so criminally under rated for so many years and the only reason John Terry trades off any kind of reputation in our league as a world class defender.
Roma`s provided a sole heart fluttering moment through a very familiar source. Baptista- who had been as anonymous playing against us as he had ever been playing for us, was about three yards offside when he contested a header in the area, the ball fell invitingly onto the left foot of John Arne Riise whose low volley flew centimetres wide. Embarrassingly, the linesman awarded a corner when replays showed that Almunia wasn`t even close to the shot. In the end, 1-0 was a result I would have taken before the match, the clean sheet is crucial and the result means Roma must and will come at us at Stadio Olimpico, which should suit us down to the ground if we play our own game. Our record on Italian territory is peerless under Wenger and maybe if we can dot a few options onto the bench in the shape of Eduardo and Walcott we have an excellent chance in the second leg. The narrow margin is slightly tinged with regret though, as we really could and should have put the tie beyond the Romans but for lax finishing. At this level, the chances spurned by Bendtner and Eboue can be incredibly costly indeed. On a positive note, the manager has obviously worked on putting more urgency and conviction onto our play and that is a trait we will need to action again on Saturday when Fulham visit. No excuses about packed defences please, just move the ball with the same pace and vibrancy and we will win. It was also pleasing to see players whose ability has been oft questioned (by me certainly in some cases), such as Eboue, Diaby, Denilson and Gallas- whose dismal early season form is a distant memory- step up to the plate in a game of this size against this opposition. Once again, one may argue Roma played a more open game and there is an element of truth in that, but I noticed a swagger and authority in Diaby and Eboue that I haven`t seen in a long time. It invites the question why they don`t play with the same joie de vivre more often. Let`s hope the players show it again on Saturday. That and a touch more ruthlessness in front of goal will see us be a more formidable side than we have shown this season. It`s frustrating because Arsenal show the component parts of a good side on occasion, we just rarely show them all at the same time. Some times we can be dogged, some times we can be fluid, some times we can be clinical, and sometimes we can be solid. If Wenger can work all of those ingredients into the same dish, we may have a tasty team on our hands. If he cannot, it is unlikely the likes of Diaby and Eboue will have any Champions League games next year in which to raise their game.LD.