Arsenal's Champions League tie did not extend to eternity in the Eternal City last night, just 10 minutes shy of three hours, but for Arsène Wenger it must have felt like for ever until Max Tonnetto, a journeyman 34-year-old left-back, finally hit the headlines when he blasted the 16th penalty of the penalty shoot-out high into a horrified Curva Nord.
After Juan had levelled the aggregate score after just nine minutes it thrice seemed Arsenal would go out. When the rampaging full-back Marco Motta tumbled under Gaël Clichy's 44th-minute challenge in the box a penalty, and red card, seemed certain. But to Roman fury the Spanish referee made the boldest of calls, one which replays suggested he may have got right, and waved play on.
Deep into normal time Arsenal escaped again when Julio Baptista was presented with a chance, eight yards out, to put behind him his miserable spell at Arsenal. The toothless Beast miscued horribly.
The final reprieve was in the 12-yard lottery. Eduardo took the first kick, and saw his soft shot easily saved by Doni. The Croatian international's hitherto fairy-tale comeback plot looked to have a ghastly sting in the tale but three penalties later Mirko Vucinic scuffed an even worse spot-kick, so bad that Manuel Almunia, who had already dived the wrong way, was able to kick it clear.
Eleven conversions followed, then came the moment poor Tonnetto will take to his grave. A quarter-century after Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbly-legged heroics earned Liverpool their fourth European Cup in this stadium Roma, the vanquished then, had suffered another gruesome night. It was especially hard on Francesco Totti, who had played majestically despite being hampered by a knee injury, on John Arne Riise who had produced an outstanding performance in central defence, having switched there when Juan limped off, and on Tonnetto.
For Wenger, the victory represented an ultimately thrilling response to his pre-match call to arms. On Arsenal's previous visit to the Italian capital, in 2002, Thierry Henry had scored a hat-trick in an easy victory. Such has been the evolution of Wenger's team that none of the XI who featured that night were even in the squad here.
Evolution? Some, including disgruntled Arsenal fans, might argue revolution was more accurate, with a series of senior players being allowed to leave contributing to a trophyless run which is approaching to four years. Wenger said this match "will be a defining moment. What we are playing for at the moment is the destiny of this team."
As midnight drew near last night that destiny seemed bright, though Wenger stressed he wanted to his team "to keep their feet on the ground, starting by winning against Blackburn on Saturday."
He added: "I am proud of the mental strength we showed because that has been questioned in our team, but you could see we have improved tremendously on that front. This will improve our confidence. I was very concerned that if we were the only English team to go out it would be detrimental to the belief of the team."
The early exchanges were marked by nervous defending and misplaced passes from both sides, one such error almost leaving Robin van Persie in the clear but Juan forced him wide. The tension was further revealed when the two captains, Van Persie and Totti, both combustible characters, clashed in midfield.
The errors in part resulted from the fact that both teams were playing a high-tempo game, taking set pieces quickly and pressing opponents. In such a game discipline is paramount and Arsenal paid for a lack of it after nine minutes. Totti, having taken possession of a loose ball on the left, crossed just behind the six-yard box, William Gallas went to intercept, then left it for Kolo Touré, who reacted late. The ball ran to Juan, unmarked because Niklas Bendtner had only tracked him to the 18-yard area then stopped. Juan, though already struggling with a muscle injury, scored with a calmness which belied his centre-half's designation.
The Stadio Olimpico erupted in a tumult of noise and colour. On the bench Wenger despaired. It was the worst of openings as Roma now had fuel to sustain their initial energy rush. His team sought an early reply but few of their many crosses – almost all from deep positions rather than the byline – reached an Arsenal head. When they did only Abou Diaby, from Clichy's cross, achieved power but his 35th-minute header was straight at Doni.
Arsenal might easily have been two down at that stage. Midway though the half Motta broke down the flank and brought a fine save from Almunia. Touré prevented Motta's follow-up cross reaching Totti but Almunia had to go full stretch to turn Taddei's subsequent shot away for a corner.
Arsenal, though having the bulk of possession, were fortunate when Motta got behind Clichy then appeared to be pushed to the ground. It seemed a stonewall penalty, and dismissal, but replays from the referee's angle suggested there was room for doubt, with Clichy's touch a light one and Motta's fall exaggerated. Given the clamour from the home support it was nevertheless a brave decision not to give it. "I was worried," Wenger admitted.
Chances were rare thereafter, aside from Baptista's grisly miss. Extra time duly arrived but with both teams heavy-legged penalties could not be avoided. Arsenal, confessed Wenger, had not practised them. Nevertheless, if not quite perfect they were good enough.
Roma (4-1-4-1): Doni; Motta, Diamoutene, Juan (Baptista, 28), Riise; Brighi; Taddei (Aquilani, 90), Pizarro, Tonetto, Vucinic; Totti. Substitutes not used: Artur (gk), Filipe, Loria, Montella, Menez.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Diaby, Denilson; Eboué (Walcott, 74), Nasri, Bendtner Eduardo, 85); Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Vela, Song, Djourou, Gibbs.
Referee: M E Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain).
The Roman shoot-out
Eduardo (Arsenal) saved 0-0
Pizarro (Roma) scores 1-0
Van Persie (Arsenal) scores 1-1
Vucinic (Roma) saved 1-1
Walcott (Arsenal) scores 1-2
Baptista (Roma) scores 2-2
Nasri (Arsenal) scores 2-3
Montella (Roma) scores 3-3
Denilson (Arsenal) scores 3-4
Totti (Roma) scores 4-4
Toure (Arsenal) scores 4-5
Aquilani (Roma) scores 5-5
Sagna (Arsenal) scores 5-6
Riise (Roma) scores 6-6
Diaby (Arsenal) scores 6-7
Tonetto (Roma) miss 6-7
Arsenal win 7-6