By Chris Harris
Arsenal took a big step towards the last eight of the Champions League with a richly-deserved 1-0 win over Roma.
Robin van Persie scored the vital goal from the penalty spot after 37 minutes after Philippe Mexes had brought the Dutchman down inside the box.
It could easily have been more. Nicklas Bendtner missed from six yards in the second half while Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Eboue also went close.
But this was promising enough. Arsène Wenger had urged his team to “take the handbrake off" and find the spark they needed to reignite their season. The manager will be delighted with the response. At times Arsenal found their buccaneering best and, on this evidence, they can prevail at the Stadio Olimpico on March 11.
Arsenal are now unbeaten in 23 home matches in the Champions League, a run which stretches back to April 2004. Those home comforts will be vital if they are to make serious progress in Europe this season.
Once again, Wenger had little room for manoeuvre with his team selection. Eduardo, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky and Mikael Silvestre were still injured while Andrey Arshavin was ineligible after representing Zenit St. Petersburg in the Champions League earlier this season. Eboue stepped in for the Russian while Diaby, fit after a thigh problem, replaced Alex Song in midfield.
A crackling atmosphere greeted the two sides and no wonder. After the relative drudgery of the group stages, this is where the Champions League really hots up. And perhaps this tie was a welcome distraction from domestic pursuits. While Arsenal scrap for a top-four place in the Premier League, tonight was a stepping-stone towards genuine silverware in May.
Wenger’s side were certainly up for it. With Samir Nasri given the freedom to roam centrally and both full-backs bombing on, Arsenal looked fluid and threatening in the opening stages.
After four minutes, Nasri was released down the right. He cut the ball back for the unmarked Bendtner 12 yards out but the Dane’s first touch was far too heavy and the chance went begging.
Nasri was next to go close, nodding Clichy’s pinpoint cross wide after a well-timed run into the box. Then William Gallas just failed to convert Kolo Toure’s downward header after Van Persie’s clipped free-kick.
Arsenal had the ‘handbrake’ off while Roma had stalled.
But the visitors reminded all and sundry of their latent threat when Marco Motta fizzed a long-range effort inches wide.
Arsenal were still making most of the running. Nasri was the catalyst, linking play superbly in the space behind Van Persie while Bendtner dropped to the left. Nasri and Diaby both tried their luck from distance and Roma needed all their cunning to snuff out Arsenal’s clever interplay in and around the box.
Eventually, it took an illegal challenge to stop the hosts.
On 35 minutes Van Persie collected Bendtner's pass and snaked into the box before Mexes - already on a yellow card - brought him down. The Dutchman picked himself up, dusted himself off and slammed home the spot kick. It was a thoroughly-deserved lead.
It could have been two a minute later. Once again Van Persie got round the side of the Roma central pair but his cut-back was just behind Bendtner and Roma escaped.
Another boost came four minutes before the break when De Rossi was booked for a scything challenge on Nasri. It was further evidence that Arsenal were winning the middle tussle - and it ruled De Rossi out of the second leg.
Roma had to gamble in the second half and they duly emerged with attacking intentions. But after weathering a brief storm Arsenal took command again.
After 52 minutes a slick break from Eboue ended with Van Persie picking out the unmarked Bendtner but the Dane scooped his shot over from six yards. Seconds later Bendtner raced down the left but just failed to find Nasri as the Frenchman charged into the six-yard box. Then Diaby forced a fine diving stop from Doni.
You sensed Roma were there for the taking but Arsenal could not find the killer punch.
Eboue was next to go so, so close, latching onto a loose back-pass but finding the side-netting.
Arsenal almost paid for their profligacy when John Arne Riise lashed a low shot inches wide. And Roma, no doubt relieved to be let off the hook, pressed on in search of an equaliser. Predictably, nerves jangled among the home fans.
But for all their possession, Roma failed to open up the hosts’ back four.
Arsenal can expect a sterner examination in a fortnight but, for now, they have the edge. This was a satisfying way to bring up a double century of games in the European Cup.
- Toure (C) Yellow Card
- Eboue 81
- Nasri Yellow Card
- Diaby 62
- van Persie Goal!
- Bendtner 67
- Ramsey 81
- Song 62
- Vela 67
- Loria 71
- Mexes Yellow Card
- Brighi 57 Yellow Card
- De Rossi Yellow Card
- Totti (C)
- Julio Baptista 83
- Artur Moraes
- Pizarro 57
- Diamoutene 71
- Vucinic 83