Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The best European night so far at The Grove...

The knockout stages of the Champions League are all about keeping it tight and nicking a goal. That is why the second leg last year at Anfield was enjoyed so much by neutrals: because it was the antithesis of a typical quarter-final match. Instead of a one goal game, there were six.

People need to bare this in mind when looking at the Roma game. Whilst people may complain, we were the only team to win last night in the Champions League. That is the starkest thing which comes out from our performance last night: of course it would have been better if we'd stuck away another chance, but the importance of this result cannot be underplayed.

Roma have to beat us by two clear goals or take us to penalties. The likelihood of penalties is pretty much zero: we've never had a shootout in the Champions League. So, for Roma to go through they need to beat us at least 2-0. To understand how difficult that is, take this stat: the last time we won the first leg and failed to go through in a European competition was in the Mestalla in 2003. In other words, history suggests that once we secure a lead in a first leg, we are good at not relinquishing it in the second leg.

Frankly, I'd back this team up to keep that stat the same. It's not as if Roma really threatened last night. As different from United's run of clean sheets where Van der Sar has had very little to do, part of our defensive stability has been the goalkeeping of Manuel Almunia. It's good people can finally put to be the theory that he cannot make big saves in big games. His save from Motta was a save any keeper would be proud of: he is worthy of the No.1 jersey.

But it was the team performance which did it last night. In many ways it's disappointing: its the same players who cannot score against Sunderland, West Ham or Tottenham who show the drive to push forward and work for the team. This was a quintessential Arsenal European performance. Individually, these may not be the best players, but the sheer work rate some displayed was superb. Indeed, the goal was as a result of high work rate: Sagna closed down Riise and the ex-Liverpool man slipped. Sagna whipped in the cross and from the resulting move came the penalty. This can be construed as being disappointing. Why does this team only show desire in the big matches?

But maybe its because of the crowd-team relationship. Last night the crowd understood the magnitude of importance attached to this single game and they got behind the team. For the first time in a knockout European game at the new stadium, we played as we know we can: that is why it was the best European night so far. We got going and fought for every ball. Of course we probably should have put the game beyond doubt but we have the lead which is more than can be said for the 7 other teams who played last night. Perspective is vital.

Despite this, the key point to come out of last night's match was the match itself. The Champions League knockout stages are a wonderful sporting theatre. The spread of talent means it is an incredibly difficult competition to predict. I think Goodplaya hit the nail on the head when he wrote about this match acting as an inspiration. Having seen what an occasion these matches are, surely these players will want more of them. Hopefully this will spur them on to 4th place and yet another year of Champions league football. The flip side is they may go back to the Premiership and be underwhelmed by the level of competition. We can but hope they continue to fight.

Keep the faith,

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