Poor Performance Overshadowed by Dramatic Penalty Shootout Victory
Last year Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League despite out-playing Liverpool over two legs. We were denied a stonewall penalty in the first leg and were the victims of a poor penalty called against us in the second leg that eliminated us from the competition. We were the better team. We deserved to go through and we were unlucky. Tonight, in the bubbling cauldron of Rome’s Olympic Stadium, our luck came around.
After 120 minutes of nail-biting, frustrating, scream at the television, can’t take your eyes off it football, Arsenal showed the necessary courage and confidence to beat Roma in an equally heart-palpitating penalty shootout. It was a joyous moment for Arsenal and Arsenal fans everywhere. It’s unthinkable what we would be feeling tonight had we lost in that penalty shootout. The pain of those missed chances in the first leg would be unbearable and the fallout from the poor performance tonight would probably resonate for at least a few weeks. But thankfully, we can leave all that behind and look forward to the quarterfinal draw.
Arsenal fans everywhere worried that we had not done enough in the first leg against Roma to effectively secure qualification. The chances were there to put the tie beyond them and we failed to convert. Instead, we took a slender 1-0 advantage into Rome for the away leg, confident from our previous performance that we could create more opportunities and score the crucial away goal. Unfortunately, our performance in the first leg was not a sign of things to come.
The first challenge for Arsene Wenger tonight was selecting the starting lineup. For the first time in months he had real options in attack and in midfield. Instead of facing the selection challenge head-on, Wenger punted. He defaulted to the same starting XI that he deployed for the first leg. I understand why he chose to do this. It worked well in the first match and he had no reason to believe that it wouldn’t work again. But Arsene seemed to forget that for all the good buildup in that match, Arsenal failed to score a single goal from open play. Tonight, he knew that a goal would kill-off Roma, and yet he started the very same players that weren’t able to score a single goal against the likes of West Ham, Sunderland and Fulham.
It’s easy to blame the manager when the team’s performance is poor, but this game had all the pieces of Arsenal’s disappointing season; comically bad defending, atrocious passing, aimless midfield play, and a lack of quality in the final third. But the worst part of the game from an Arsenal fan’s perspective was the inexplicable lack of passion shown by most of the team. Where was the energy and pace that exposed Roma in the first leg? Where was the enthusiasm to go out and qualify for the quarterfinals? It didn’t seem to be on display.
It’s hard to single out a player for praise, because the team was almost uniformly mediocre. Toure and Gallas made a mess of a simple ball to gift Juan a goal. On that very same play, Bendtner was criminally guilty of ball watching rather than chasing back to defend. Van Persie was as poor as I have seen him all season. There’s no denying that he’s been on the decline since his amazing January, but this game was a real low point for him. Denilson couldn’t decide whether to give the ball away or commit a foul, so he usually did both in quick succession. Clichy was a liability from the start. He was caught out of position on the play that setup Baptista’s horrendous miss and that was only one of many examples of his poor play. He is very very lucky that Mr. Gonzales did not award a penalty against him just before half-time. He did try to get forward, but rarely made anything of his forays.
In fairness, Nasri worked hard. Diaby was solid throughout the match both in attack and helping defend. And Sagna was mostly solid as usual. But as a whole, the team seemed utterly passionless. Of all the mistakes a player can make, playing without passion is the one that most fans are loathe to forgive. It’s incredible to me that this same squad that created chance after chance just a fortnight ago, never really troubled Doni’s goal over 120 minutes tonight. And what makes it worse, is that Roma looked a very mediocre side. They were slow and careless in possession. They were playing without key starters and with several players that were barely fit. Even with the home crowd behind them, this is a team that we should have easily dismantled. It was a poor display from a team that may be a bit weary, or may have been caught reading too many headlines suggesting that all they had to do to qualify was show up in Rome.
But here’s the amazing part of the story, Arsenal came through when it mattered most. The penalty shootout was agonizing to watch. Mrs. Yankee Gunner Blog got an upset stomach just watching me watch the shootout. It was unbearable. And yet, somehow, this inexperienced group of young players had the mettle to see off the battle tested veterans from Rome. And when Tonetto launched his penalty into the roman night, we finally saw the passion and exuberance from Arsenal that had been missing during the match. It was a glorious moment and nothing about the performance can take away our spot in the quarterfinals.
You can’t win a tournament like this without some luck along the way. Arsenal have had their share of bad luck in the Champions League in the past. Tonight we can consider ourselves lucky to still be in the running for top European honors. But sometimes you have to make your luck. We went into the first leg against Roma shrouded in negativity. Our season was crumbling around us on the heels of all those scoreless draws. We had every reason to fail. And yet, this team chose to ressurect their season with a dominating display in that first leg. Chose to build off that performance with improved efforts in the league and FA Cup. They continued that climb tonight by riding their luck until their backs were against the wall. And then they produced the mental toughness that the media have always claimed they didn’t have. They won the penalty shootout and booked a place in the next round.
We will need better performances in the quarterfinals if we want to continue to participate in the Champions League, but for the time being, this is a moment to savor.