Let us all take a step back. Two weeks ago, when I wrote the preview for Arsenal–Roma, I stated that “this first conflict 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.” On this account, I went on to say that “the return leg will be just a formality.”
It appears that the prediction did not come to pass. Arsenal took home a 1-0 victory, a result which I had dubbed to be ‘highly unlikely,’ and the second match seems very open. Still, I am reluctant to scratch that first prediction completely. Even as the final result was discordant with it, the reading of the game was entirely correct. I claimed that if Roma were going to lose, then they would do so by a very wide margin. I staked that claim on the fact that Roma were under conditions of terrific psychological frailty and had an ineffective backline, so that if they lost their mental frame, the holes that this would open in their defence would have been awful. This is exactly what happened. In the original prediction, I posited two possible scenarios – Roma would either win lightly or they would be defeated decisively. From the outset it became patent that the match was orbiting towards the second development, and how it did not follow it to its conclusion is a mystery worthy of an Etruscan catacomb. The number of golden chances that Roma offered to the English team to close the game were such that a final result of 3-0 or 4-0 would not have been a fluke.
By far the most abnormal duel was that between Roma defender Simone Loria and Arsenal forward Nicklas Bendtner. When I suggested that the conditions of form of the two teams were so dire that this would have been less like a Champions League round than like a match between two teams selected from the national hospitals I wasn’t being literal. These two men were making me think I should have. I respect Loria almost as much as if he was a real football player, but his performance against Arsenal was the mother of all Waterloos. On at least two occasions his defensive lapses offered Arsenal the victory on a silver platter. For his own part, Bendtner managed to miss some goals which would have required an effort to be kept from rolling in on their own. The man may be young, but there is a difference between showing lack of experience and playing as though your feet were shaped like the end of a necktie, and Bendtner was doing the latter. The two players were so unfit to their tasks, in fact, that by the end of the game it was hard to tell which one was the Roma defender and which the Arsenal forward.
The good news – presumably for both teams – is that this situation should have changed for the return leg. Central defender Juan will almost certainly be back from injury, giving the Giallorossi backline some semblance of cohesive form, and Arsenal’s recent results point towards a return to goal-scoring form. We may actually witness a real football match rather than a Laurel & Hardy film this time around.
Clearly the onus to offend will be on Roma. How they will execute this is an interesting question. The absence of Daniele De Rossi is of course gigantic and will call for a general reformation of the entire midfield. In theory, this may result in a more offensive iteration of the Roma team, with someone like Cicinho – normally a very fluid right-back – moved on the wing (an especially interesting prospect if he finds his chemistry with Marco Motta, the current and excellent right-back). In practice, there is no way of knowing how Roma will execute without De Rossi as he has been absent on such few occasions. They certainly lose some defensive punch, and if Samir Nasri is going to play anything like he did in the first leg, expect pain.
Speaking of the Arsenal offence – what should we make of Robin Van Persie? It should have been him, more than Nasri, to offer most of the spectacle and the danger. He seemed a little spent in the first leg, a fact which is all the more remarkable if we consider that the defence he was playing against was one he could have eaten for breakfast on most days. He should have a better game this time around, and it would be wise of the Roman Coach to keep a man on him – even at the expense of giving some space to Nasri.
The Roman attack suffered the absence of Mirko Vucinic greatly on the first go. The man is one of the team’s best resources in the Champions League, and the match against Udinese showed just how decisive the man can still be. He will be back for the game against Arsenal, and the spotlight will be on him to make the difference. While he doesn’t lack the talent for this (much less the finishing skills, which unlike Bendtner’s are terrific), he has just come back from injury and his performance will likely be quite opaque. The same is true for Francesco Totti, who would have to play as though he were Francesco Totti but whose physical conditions (and tendency to under-perform on the international stage) will make his presence little more than symbolic for the best part of the game. Not that the symbolic factor should be underestimated – if Totti were not playing, I would call this game already won for Arsenal. But the national hospital sitcom is bound to continue, with Totti as the precious Dr House.
We mentioned Roma’s psychological condition. This should be less frail than the last time – the team has nothing to lose, everything to win and a hunger for revenge. Arsenal should bring some meat to the table themselves, seen how they appear to be growing, but I expect Roma to take the edge in terms of the mentality. If Coach Luciano Spalletti can find an adequate way of compensating for the tactical chasm left by the absence of De Rossi, then Roma should dominate. Whether that will be enough to win is a different question – Roma has the talent and the will to finalise, but in this conjuncture a single goal by Arsenal would mean that Roma need three to pass. Even as I count on Roma to lead the dances, the final result is too close to call.
It should be noted, in closure, that even if Roma does provide a beautiful game, we should be careful what we read into it. In the last article in our club focus feature, I argued against what I perceived to be a pretty widespread opinion, that Roma’s dominance against Inter was a sign of resurgence and better times to come, and claimed instead that that beautiful game was a chimera belying serious structural flaws. These flaws, I argued, were far from being resolved and would show up again in the near future. Punctually, in the very next game – the 1-1 draw against Udinese – Roma showed no trace of the powerful game they played against Inter and were back to exposing the same exact flanks as before – namely, a tactical game which is incapable of finalising and a psychological condition which swings back and forth like a pendulum. The pendulum is now swinging the other way, so Arsenal should be faced with the right resolve (again, provided that De Rossi’s absence can be compensated for). But Roma’s long-term problems depend on factors which run much deeper than this game – factors which are still present, and which will be perching on the lights of the Olimpico like the raven in the poem, softly whispering ‘Nevermore.’