After a narrow 1-0 victory for Arsenal in the first leg of the Champions League last 16, the deciding match is tentatively poised and shrouded in anticipation. The Gunners take a slender lead to the Stadio Olimpico through a Robin Van Persie penalty, but whether the Londoners can hold on to their advantage against a side with a formidable home record hangs in the balance. The second leg confrontation has all the hallmarks of an enthralling encounter, but at the same time could be stifled into a frustrating waste of time. The one certainty is there must be a winner.
Arsenal will approach the game believing they already have one foot in the quarter-finals, albeit in the knowledge that Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboue might have put their progression beyond doubt at the Emirates which will have been gnawing at them for the past fortnight. Had the duo been more clinical in front of goal, this game would have not been much more than a formality. That the Italians have been thrown a lifeline will surely serve to boost their confidence and belief. It will not come as a surprise if they capitalised on their opponent’s lack of composure.
With their strike force decimated by injury, Arsene Wenger’s men have been finding goals hard to come by of late. Four of their last five Premier League outings have ended with goalless draws and this is seriously beginning to irk Arsenal fans. That they scored three against a West Bromwich Albion side almost certain to leak goals against stronger opposition will not appease the Emirates faithful and although it might momentarily boost the confidence of the players somewhat, they will still travel to Rome relying mostly on a solid defence to keep out a potentially dangerous Roma attack. Three goals and another clean sheet against Championship side Burnley in the FA Cup clash at the weekend, took the Gunners remarkable defensive record, in all competitions, to one goal conceded in their last eight outings. That said however, they haven’t played a team with the calibre of i Lupi in the Stadio Olimpico. As we saw when Chelsea visited back in November – like their ancient gladiator counterparts, the capital side do not show any mercy when fighting for their lives.
One of the major contributing factors to the North London club’s mediocrity at present is the list of casualties to key components of their side. The influential quartet of Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Adebayor and Mikael Silvestre are all sidelined through injury. Kolo Toure was also absent from the FA Cup victory over Burnley at the weekend with a calf injury, although he is expected to return to partner William Gallas for the trip to the Eternal City. With January signing Andrei Arshavin cup-tied after representing Zenit St. Petersburg in the earlier rounds, Arsenal will be suffering from a lack of creativity in the middle which without doubt has been a major contributing factor to their goal drought.
A saving grace for the Emirates Coach may be the return to fitness of Eduardo and Theo Walcott. The England whiz-kid has recovered from the shoulder injury he sustained during a training session with the national team and is likely to be included in Wenger’s squad. This is the fourth time Walcott has been sidelined with his plagued shoulder however, therefore the French Tactician will be wary of a premature introduction for what is likely to be a tough, physical encounter. Knowing he has options on the bench to inject pace and invention should it be required will be comfort enough for Wenger. After all, the talented winger is noted for his impact as a substitute.
The home side need a goal and therefore have to pressurise their opponents. With the state of Arsenal’s decrepit forward line, it will be no surprise if Wenger aims to hold on to the one-nil lead despite defensive tactics not traditionally being Wenger’s philosophy. That said, a five man midfield may be is best option to secure a vital away goal utilising the pace of Carlos Vela down the flank. A goal for the Londoners will all but kill the game.
The return of Juan in the heart of the Roma defence will be a massive boost for Luciano Spalletti as they seek to ensure the visitors do not register an away goal. Breaking down a stubborn Arsenal rearguard to overcome the one goal deficit will be hard enough, but to have to grab three to go through may well prove too much to ask of the hosts, unless they are already two up and make Arsenal have to stretch the game. The i Lupi Tactician will therefore be praying his influential captain Francesco Totti will be fit, available and on form to rally the troops to victory. The importance of the Giallorossi talisman was underlined at the weekend when he was rested for the game with Udinese having not fully recovered from the troublesome knee injury that has plagued the twilight of his career.
A question mark was also hanging over the availability of Mirko Vucinic, another key figure to the Roma attack. The Montenegrin had been struggling with a back injury but came off the bench to grab a vital point against Udinese, but more importantly came through the game unscathed and should be fit to face the Gunners. Former Arsenal recruit Julio Baptista should also be fit to face his old side after recovering from a bout of flu. One feels that if Roma are to break their opponents resolve, the combined pace, power and guile of their trident attacking force will need to be at their most clinically proficient.
The first goal will make or break this cup tie. If it goes to Arsenal, the purist will be well advised to switch channel. If Roma register first they will go for the jugular in search of a winner rather than risk the lottery of penalties. An away goal for Arsenal and a second strike for the Giallorossi will open up a seesaw exhibition – then we will have a game on our hands!