Arsenal Look to Join Fellow English Teams in the Quarterfinals
Today was an interesting day in the Champions League without any truly shocking results. The shocks came from the way the results took shape. Chelsea looked ragged at times but fought back against a very game Juventus side in Turin. Liverpool played with outstanding intensity to dismantle a Real Madrid side that frankly looked like they couldn’t be bothered. They seemed far more concerned with the referee than with defending Gerrard or Torres. Villareal squeaked out a 2-1 over Panathinaikos to qualify. And poor Sporting Lisbon made their 5-0 capitulation look like a master class with a 7-1 humiliation in Munich. No real surprises. Two English teams into the quarterfinals, with two looking to follow in their footsteps tomorrow.
Arsene Wenger has some tough choices to make with his starting lineup. He must get the mix right between a solid defensive effort and enough invention to create the all-important away goal that would surely secure qualification for the next round. Let’s start with some of the things we know about the team sheet.
Adebayor is not available. I get the feeling that if he was playing like he did last season, that his injury would be magically healed for this match. But he’s not playing like he did last season. Wenger has some attacking options that he probably likes a little better right now and rather than embarrassing Adebayor by not picking him, he is simply keeping him at home with an injury. Mikael Silvestre has returned from injury but not soon enough to make the team sheet for this match. Please try to keep your weeping to a minimum as we cope with this tragic news. Fabregas and Rosicky are not back yet and Arshavin is not eligible. And that’s all we know for certain.
Here’s what we can gather from the information available. Theo Walcott will be in the team but has declared himself not yet ready to start. He probably serves us better off the bench in this match anyway. If we can run Roma ragged like we did in the first leg, they will have no answer for his pace late in the game. Kolo returns from a brief injury spell and I have a feeling he will resume his partnership with Gallas in central defense. They played well against Roma in the first leg, so my guess is that Djourou starts on the bench. We can also assume that Clichy and Sagna will start, despite a nice game for Gibbs against Burnley. Nasri returns to the starting lineup, although there’s no telling where will be deployed. Van Persie will almost certainly start despite a recent run of form that has seen him miss a fair number of clear goal-scoring opportunities. And from there, it’s anyone’s guess. Since this is my blog, here’s my guess about the rest of the starting lineup.
I have a feeling that Wenger will be very tempted to start Eduardo in this match. He can get that away goal with a single touch and it will be very difficult to leave that kind of class on the bench. However, there is simply no chance that he plays the entire 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Eduardo is not really suited to playing on the wing and Wenger loves to play the 4-5-1 in the Champions League. If he opts for that formation tomorrow, then Eduardo should be left out of the starting lineup. Then it would probably be Van Persie alone up front, with Nasri, Diaby, Denilson, Song and Eboue lined up across midfield.
Wenger could not be faulted for playing the very same lineup he used to perfection in the first leg. That would leave Song on the bench and see Bendtner come in as a wide player. It’s not his strong suit but he was influential in the first leg. While everyone was impressing with Song’s performance at the weekend, it was still just one match against lower division opposition. Of course, Vela will be shouting for a starting spot on the left after his show of class against Burnley. You can go around and around like this for hours. This is where it becomes much easier to be a supporter. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one making these decisions tomorrow night.
My personal opinion is that we have the quality and the fitness to really trouble Roma. They are missing some key players, most notably Di Rossi, and they are facing us at a resurgent moment in our season. The players should be full of confidence and looking forward to playing Roma after the bevy of scoring opportunities they created in the first leg. For these reasons, I hope that Wenger decides to really have a go at them. I’d love to see Eduardo partner Van Persie up front in a traditional 4-4-2 formation. Nasri could play his favored left wing position with Diaby and Denilson in the middle and Eboue on the right. It’s an attack-minded setup to be sure, but I believe it would get us the goal that should ensure qualification. We would have Walcott ready at the hour mark to torture Roma with his pace, and Song available to sure up the defending down the stretch. Bendtner, or even Vela, could replace Eduardo after 60 or 70 minutes as he is not quite ready for the full 90. It’s probably not the strategy that Wenger will employ, but it’s one that would really show Roma our intention.
I don’t like this Arsenal team when they setup to defend. It’s not their strong suit physically, mentally or tactically. And for the fans, it’s maddening watching the minutes tick by like hours while Gallas and Toure desperately hack the ball out of our penalty box. My nerves simply couldn’t handle 90 minutes of that performance. And I don’t think the outcome would suit us. So here’s hoping that Arsenal come out to boss the game and show Roma that the first leg performance was no fluke.
Two weeks ago we were all looking at the Champions League as a nice distraction from our tribulations in the league. Now I think every Arsenal fan is secretly building up hope for a special European run. That starts with the necessary performance tomorrow.
On a depressing note, Arsenal have put out a warning to travelling supporters regarding their safety in Rome. As an American, I simply cannot fathom feeling unsafe attending a sporting event because of the team that I support. It is a sad statement for Europe that loyal and passionate fans of the beautiful game cannot coexist in a peaceful manner. Americans are as rabid about their sports as any population in the world and yet, somehow, we are able to find ways to sit together in our massive stadiums, side by side, without resorting to the kind of unforgivable violence that continues to tarnish the magnificence of European football. I can only hope that travelling Arsenal supporters are able to enjoy a safe and special night of football tomorrow in Rome.
I can’t wait another minute.
Come on you Gunners!