By Richard Clarke at the Stadio Olimpico, Rome
Arsenal are into the Champions League Quarter-Finals after an incredible night of drama at the Stadio Olimipcio.
Juan’s early goal cancelled out the advantage Arsène Wenger’s side had gained in the first leg. The rest of normal time and extra time remained goalless so this nervous but entertaining tie went to penalties.
Eduardo missed the first of the shoot-out but later on Manuel Almunia saved from Mario Vucinic to level up the scores. The crucial miss at 7-6 in sudden death came when Max Tonetto blazed high over the bar.
Arsenal march on. And hopefully their smattering of good fortune tonight will help them return to Rome for the Champions League Final in May.
At his press conference on Tuesday morning, Wenger said he had a decision to make over a couple of positions. In the end, he stuck with side that had won 1-0 in the first leg at fortnight ago. It was 4-2-3-1, now the standard in Europe it seems, with Van Persie supported by a triumvirate of Samir Nasri, Emmanuel Eboue and Nicklas Bendtner. Behind them, Abou Diaby and Denilson protected a back four that was reinforced by the return of Kolo Toure after a calf injury.
There had been rumours abound over Roma’s absences. Cicinho (knee), Daniele de Rossi (suspension) and Marco Cassetti were certainly out. There were suggestions that Francesco Totti, David Pizarro, Doni, Philippe Mexes and Alberto Aquilani and Mirko Vucinic were all struggling.
In the end only Mexes missed the game.
The Stadio Olimpico was everything you would expect at kick-off. Loud, colourful, intimidating. Arsenal had history on this ground – a superb 3-1 win against Roma in 2002 and a highly-creditable 1-1 draw with Lazio in 2000. But that would be worth nothing this evening.
It was as if the home fans were trying to prove definitively that the concept of the ‘12th man’ is true. The pre-mach perception was that the injury-hit home side would need the help. However it did not turn out that way.
Roma were the better side in the first 20 minutes. They were crisp and persistent in their tackling. They closed down the Arsenal defenders and forced them into nervous mistakes.
John-Arne Riise’s blocked shot was Roma’s first sight of goal. In the ninth minute they would score and it was a horrible goal for Arsenal to concede.
Francesco Totti’s low cross in from the right bobbled between Toure and Gallas, through the legs of Rodrigo Taddei to Juan at the far post. If the Brazilian was surprised to get the ball it did not show. He kept his cool as the Arsenal defence scrambled back and slammed home from close range.
It was the lead on the night and leveller in the tie. Roma players and fans celebrated accordingly.
At the same time, the goal was a pin in the bubble of self-belief Arsenal had built up in their 17-game unbeaten run. Now they had to guard against deflation.
Gallas did loop a header into Doni’s hands but the home side now saw their chance.
In the 22nd minute Motta drove forward in the right-hand channel and forced a strong-handed block by Almunia at the near post. The Italian raced to the byline and scooped the ball back into the centre of the goal just before it crossed the line. It came out to Taddei, whose low cross-shot was tipped around the far post by Almunia. The keeper had recovered his ground with alacrity.
Around the half-hour, Arsenal did start to find their feet. And they came closest to scoring when Gael Clichy swirling left-wing cross found Diaby’s head. The Frenchman’s effort had power but was directed straight at Doni, who gathered with relative ease.
Van Persie nodded over and Eboue hacked horribly wide. Neither chance was ever going in but it was testament to the fact that Arsenal were on the offensive.
However, a minute before the break, came a crucial moment. Gallas lost the ball venturing too far forward and Totti’s chip sent Motta sprinting clear on the right with Clichy in pursuit. The two defenders ended up a heap in the area and Roma seemed convinced it was a penalty. Referee Manuel Gonzalez waved play on.
The Spanish official was given the benefit of the home fans’ opinion as he walked off Arsenal needed half-time. They had been second-best and wise words for Wenger were required.
Although Roma started the second period quickly with substitute Julio Baptista nodding wide and Riise firing in a free-kick, the visitors were making matters more even.
Toure’s drive was deflected wide and, from the corner, Bacary Sagna powered a header straight at Doni.
Diaby and Eboue were inches away from providing defence-splitting passes to Van Persie and Bendtner respectively.
But, at the other end, Totti was starting to do what Totti does. He found intelligent space just outside the area and went close with a couple of drives from distance – one flew wide of Almunia’s post, the other into his chest.
The game was a real cup-tie now. There was little containment in midfield as both sides went for the crucial next goal.
In the 64th minute, Nasri’s corner was punched clear to Diaby who weaved himself some space on the edge of the area and poked an effort just wide.
However Arsenal could not maintain their momentum and, as a result, Wenger withdrew Eboue for Walcott 10 minutes later. It added pace and urgency to Arsenal but it was Roma who would forge the real tie-killing chance before the end.
In the 79th minute, Taddei stormed down the right and Totti touched his low cross to the unmarked Baptista 10 yards out. All the sliding Brazilian had to do was guide the ball home but it hit the outside of his foot and flew wide.
A massive let-off for Arsenal.
Extra-time was now looming and so Wenger made another change – Eduardo for Bendtner. The Croatian was quickly involved and helped the visitors create a couple of decent chances just before the end of normal time.
First Van Persie bobbled a deflected shot just wide from the edge of the box. The corner found Walcott on the left, his deep cross was nodded back into the six-yard box by Van Persie and Toure heaved a header over the bar from a few feet out.
The Ivorian lay disappointed on the grass for a few seconds then sprang up, dusted himself down and raced back to his position.
He had 30 more minutes of work to do.
Extra-time is often a disappointment these days. By this point, both sides are all too aware of what they have to lose.
That seemed the mentality this evening. Roma had pressure in the first period of extra-time but the best chance came in the 100th minute when Denilson bustled through on the right of the area and Van Persie hoiked the Brazilian’s cross over the bar.
Walcott tested Doni early in the second period but, in the 114th minute, it took a superbly timed challenge from Toure to dispossess Baptista as he bore down on goal.
However the side could not be divided in three and an half hours of football. So the tie would be decided from 12 yards.
Eduardo took the first for Arsenal and Doni saved low to his right. Pizarro then scored to give Roma the advantage. Van Persie’s coolly converted then Almunia saved easily from Mario Vucinic’s cheeky effort to level matters at 2-2. Walcott just managed to squirm his shot through Doni’s fingers and Baptista blasted a thunderbolt into the top of the net.
Nasri’s effort was placed to the keeper’s left and Vincenzo Montella almost skipped his effort in to the corner for 3-3.
It was now effectively sudden death. Denilson rattled his penalty straight down the middle and it was left to Totti to complete the first five apiece. He did so with aplomb.
Toure took a long run up and then sidefooted home Aquilani response was impish and accurate – 5-5.
Sagna opted for a short run and stroked the ball in the corner. Riise just squeezed his left-foot drive past Almunia’s outstretched left-hand - 6-6.
Diaby scored with nonchalance and it was Tonetto who fired over the bar.
Wenger’s men had kept their nerve with an excellent set of penalties. It had been two well-matched sides in an incredibly tense tie but Arsenal were through.
Referee: Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain)
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