It is only too easy to draw analogies between Roma and Arsenal. Both teams have spent the last few years offering smooth and beautiful football, both have provided surprises in the recent editions of the Champions League, taking out big guns Real Madrid and Milan respectively, and both have provided serious threats to the dominant forces in their domestic leagues (albeit both walking away without the final silverware). In an uncanny continuation of the parallel, both teams have suffered a pretty dramatic crash this season and are now struggling for the fourth spot, a position crucial to the future of both societies inasmuch as it allows access to next year’s Champions League. Now the twins are finally pitched against each other, and breaths are being held on both sides. How are we to read this confrontation?
The first thing to keep in mind is that both teams are at a low. If this encounter had taken place last year, it would have been a sparkling, spectacular match with plenty of beautiful football and real elegance in build-up and execution. Today, it will be more like watching a selection of the two best squads from the national hospitals facing each other on wheelchairs – there may be some glory to it, but surely the aesthetics of the spectacle are bound to suffer. Arsenal is currently the worse off of the two teams – their midfield is an empty constellation, deprived as it is of almost all of its stars. Furthermore, and paradoxically, Arsenal is at a disadvantage precisely because they resemble Roma in style of play. The two teams currently share a rather dreary, slow game that is often frustrating to watch, but it is a style that Roma have specialised in neutralising as much as they have in expressing it.
The midfield is normally the most decisive zone of the pitch in a regular football match. This may not be the case for Arsenal-Roma. Arsenal’s injuries are frightful, from the extinction of Cesc Fabregas to the loss of Theo Walcott (easily one of the most dynamic players in the London team), and their current midfield line-up seems rather dry. Possibly the only true source of creativity left for them in the middle of the pitch is Samir Nasri, and his position raises interesting questions. Given the current drought of creative central players, Nasri seems wasted on the left, and Arsenal’s whole game may benefit if he is allowed to seep a little more into the central lines. The decision will be up to coach Arsene Wenger, although the man has seemed reluctant to exploit Nasri’s central potential and it seems unlikely that we will see him take risks in such a delicate match.
Then again, the question may end up bearing little relevance. Roma’s backbone is composed of three holding midfielders and almost all of them are very effective. Daniele De Rossi in particular is an absolute monster in the art of man-marking, and he will represent a formidable obstacle should Nasri decide to play centrally. In theory, Arsenal’s lack of creativity combined with Roma’s imposing defensive midfielders should allow the Italian team to dominate the game in that area of the pitch. In practice, Roma’s phalange is a double-edged sword, and while they are excellent at containing, they are markedly less effective when it comes to penetrating beyond enemy lines (the task is often delegated to the fullbacks, but Roma happen to have lost to injury their most creative one in Cicinho). This is why this game is unlikely to be decided in the midfield – Arsenal do not have the men to break Roma’s defences, and Roma do not have the resources to exploit any ball possession they may conquer.
Scratching the midfield, then, the raw man-to-man confrontation between defenders and forwards gains tremendous weight. Arsenal find a huge and potentially decisive asset in the fact that Roma might have lost central defender Juan – an absence which would be utterly critical if we consider that the Giallorossi have no real replacement for him. The skirmish between Coach Luciano Spalletti and defender Christian Panucci has resulted in the exclusion of the latter from the list of players eligible for the Champions League, a decision which, should Roma lose to Arsenal this Tuesday, will go down as one of the most idiotic in the Tactician’s career. The other alternatives are blood-curdling to Italian fans – Simone Loria, who has single-handedly lost more points for Roma with his mistakes than the team’s entire defence did last year, or Souleymane Diamoutene, who has never played a Champions League match in his life.
Commentators are quick to point out that the Arsenal offence has suffered injuries as well, especially in the loss of significant poacher Emmanuel Adebayor. But in the context of this specific game, his absence has been overstated – in fact, it may even turn out to be beneficial to the London team. Roma’s defence specialises in dealing with powerful forwards like Adebayor – it is in fact speed, not potency that really sends the Giallorossi defences into a crisis. Nicklas Bendtner has less power than his colleague but a greater potential for unpredictability, and he may well prove a more effective option if he is fielded. Even more importantly, the most crucial man in the Arsenal offence will be there. Robin Van Persie is fast like lightning and just as brilliant, and he represents exactly the kind of forward that Roma tend to suffer. If he turns out to be in form for the game, then there is no better man to exploit the spaces made available by Juan’s potential absence. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the injury of the Roman central defender could make or break the game.
On the other side of the pitch, we have a situation which is rather difficult to read. Most observers would point to Francesco Totti as the most dangerous man in the Roman offence. It is true that Roma seem incapable of playing without him, and there can be no doubt that he is the most talented man in the team’s offensive trio (by a mile). It is also true, however, that Totti is somewhat of an underperformer in the Champions League, while his fellow forwards – Julio Baptista and Mirko Vucinic, representing power and speed respectively – are absolutely explosive in this competition. There are some doubts regarding Vucinic and his form (the man is still picking himself up from injury, so he may be a little off), but Wenger should worry about these two figures at least as much as he should about Totti. All three have the potential to be decisive. Finally, there is the possibility that Jérémy Menez may see some playing time, but to what effect is anyone’s guess – the young Frenchman is as clearly talented as he is effectively inexperienced, and there is no knowing how he would perform in such a high-level match.
Alongside the variables relating to the individual men, there is one factor which can not go without mention – it is the psychological aspect of the game. Having to play the first leg at home is normally an handicap, but Arsenal should try and turn this to their advantage. With the concession made for Juan’s absence, Roma have the potential to win this game, but they face their most dangerous opponent not in Van Persie or in Nasri but in their own resolve. The Giallorossi have a very poor history of performing in England, and they will be all too aware of this as they step under the lights of the Emirates. Their form seems to come and go completely arbitrarily – leaving aside this Saturday’s 1-0 victory against Siena (a result of little bearing on this match), they lost last week against a minnow and won the week before that against a dangerous opponent. In both cases the result was by 3-0. Arsenal, for their own part, has finally shown some good form in their latest games, and it will be imperative for them to call upon all of it this Tuesday against Roma. With the final being played at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, the Italian team will want this much more than their English counterparts, and it will be important for Arsenal to break this resolve before it is given a chance to solidify.
The initial equilibriums of this clash are so delicate that the way they are resolved is bound to put an end to all future ones. In other words, if Arsenal is to win this game, they must win it now. Anything short of a decisive result is going to see the London team out, because pulling back against Roma in Rome would be a massive feat – one probably beyond the reach of a team as structurally frail as this patched-up version of the Gunners. On the other hand, Roma confront such a taxing initial psychological scenario and have such an important weakness in the probable loss of their central defender, that if they do lose, then they will do so drastically. A 1-0 or 2-1 victory by Arsenal is highly unlikely – if the London team wins, they will do so with a goal differential from 2-0 upwards.
This first conflict between the two continental twins will be concluded with one of two results – either a moderate advantage for Roma (one which will almost certainly be capitalised upon in the return leg), or a decisive one for Arsenal. Either way, this match is much more than a first leg. Barring an injury to Totti inbetween games, the team to come out on top of this match will have almost certain access to the quarter-finals. To the extent that such statements can be made in football at all, we have no trouble in declaring that the return leg will be just a formality.