Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lucky Arsenal

There, I said it and I'm proud of it.
Enough of Liverpool hogging all the luck.
It's about time we got some.

I've been standing back and waiting patiently over the last couple of weeks for this–the showdown with Roma in Rome.

For the first leg in London, we took an Artgig holiday and closed the shop to watch the match at a local pub. My friend, and longtime Roma fan, Danny, even joined us (only because he'd managed to lock himself out of his house). And Jim's fiance, Nicole, who plainly admits to an older man crush on Wenger, skipped out of work for the occasion.

We were treated to some of the best football I've seen Arsenal play all season. They completely dominated a clueless Roma side for most of the match but came away with only a 1-0 victory. It could have and should have been three or four goals to the Arsenal.

"Would it come back to haunt Arsenal?" the papers asked.

Then Arsenal beat up on hopeless West Brom in a league match where Bendtner actually shined, grabbing two goals for himself, in a 3-1 victory.

And this past weekend, we put on a dazzling display in the FA Cup, eclipsing any hopes of a Burnley run at glory and banishing the demons of Turf Moor, with wonder goals from Vela, Eduardo and, of all people, Eboue for a 3-0 victory.

"A return to goal scoring for Arsenal!" the papers shouted.

It's good to see the goals flowing, I thought, but a couple of wins against lesser competition do not mark a return to anything–it's simply a market correction.

I remained cautious but a bit more optimistic than usual in the build-up to last night's match in Rome.

Pre-match reports had the entire Roma first team out injured while Arsenal was surely boosted by the return of Walcott and Eduardo from injury. And the previous night's showing by Liverpool and Chelsea, dismissing Real Madrid and Juventus from the competition, surely played to Arsenal's favor as the English domination of Champion's League football continues.

But this is still a young Arsenal side who has not played with any consistency this season and they were playing a dangerous, cornered Roma side in Rome.

The big match atmosphere in Rome is so bloodthirsty, Arsenal even handed out brochures and sent text messages to Arsenal supporters traveling to the match, warning them to stick to strict travel routes to and from the stadium, in order to avoid trouble from the rabid "Ultra" Roma supporters.

Okay, so I was a little worried.

Matchday brought an eerie calm to the office and bad omens at every turn: There's no daylight savings in Europe, the Arsenal plane had been delayed, Steve called in sick and Danny was tied up at work so it was down to me and Jim, and to make matters worse, when we got to the bar we found our parking spaces were taken.

But we were able to get the same lucky seats, Nicole was planning to join us, and Wenger had selected the same team that had bossed Roma so thoroughly in London.

Jim and I ordered a couple of beers and took our positions as the match started.
We counted exactly one other Arsenal fan seated at the bar, amongst a small gang of Inter and Man U fans.

No matter what happened, I was sure Roma would raise their game and Arsenal would need to do the same.

Well, Roma definitely raised their game but Arsenal certainly did not.

Arsenal looked flat-footed and devoid of ideas and Roma looked hungry and confident.
We couldn't string more than two passes together, we were losing the midfield battle and our chances were reduced to speculative pop-up crosses and set pieces that fizzled and died.

It was nearly a complete reversal of what we saw when the teams played in London.

Roma was doing an excellent job of breaking up any hope of open play and in the process, I'm sure Eboue learned a thing or two about proper diving technique.

It was only a matter of time before Arsenal were down 1-0, due to shockingly poor defending on a ball that skipped across goal and right past three Arsenal defenders, before one of Roma's walking wounded, Juan, fired in at the far post.

Did I mention that most of the bar was watching Man U play Inter and so we were forced to listen to their commentary as we followed the Arsenal action? And what sinister plan did Danny hatch to keep Steve from the game? And where was Nicole?

Thankfully, Arsenal were able to hang on as the half raced by and Jim and I were relieved to be tied on aggregate at the break.

Jim dialed Nicole and she made it for the second half.

And then things started to change.

Arsenal kept working.

It was a grueling effort and we never quite got our groove back, but we hung in there–thanks, in large part, to Diaby who kept us in the midfield fight.

The game swayed back and forth.

Almunia bailed us out of danger more than once.

Roma got tired.

When Walcott and Eduardo came on late in the match I was sure we'd find a goal.

But the sides remained deadlocked and Roma actually had the best chance of the game when ex-Arsenal man, the "Beast" Baptista, broke through for an open goal from a Totti pass, but he amazingly squandered the chance.

It was tense, frayed nerves kind of stuff, but we were a long way from done.

The Man U match ended with United victorious and we played on.

The bar switched the sound over as the after work crowd filtered in.

One period of extra time came and went–still deadlocked.

We would endure a second nail-biting period of extra time before reaching the only conclusion these two teams would allow–penalty kicks.

The thought had crossed my mind at some point but I'd quickly banished it because I was certain if it came to PK's in Rome it would surely mean the end for Arsenal.

The other Arsenal fan joined us at our table.

As Eduardo stepped up for the first kick the drama was almost too much to bear...

Ice cold Eduardo.


Pizarro scores for Roma.

I could hear the air coming out as we deflated.

Van Persie steps up and...scores for Arsenal.

And a funny thing happened, I think I saw Van Persie tweak Eduardo's nose in playful celebration, a small gesture with enormous meaning that I think shouts volumes about Arsenal as a team, or at least the usually intense and sometimes sulky, Van Persie as a teammate.

Next thing you know, Vucinic takes one of the worst penalties ever for Roma, Almunia simply falls on the ball and we're right back in it.

We would go through a total of 16 penalty kicks, what felt like forever, before another miss.

Lucky for Arsenal, it was Roma.

I couldn't believe it when Tonetto's shot sailed over the goal - missing completely.

Arsenal poured forward to mob Almunia in celebration.

We celebrated with a round of high fives, and then another...

Arsenal fought long and hard and held their nerve against a Roma team showing great heart and courage.

We live to fight another day.

And if Lady Luck calls again, I surely won't turn her away.

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