A night when the stars aligned for Arsenal, when all the trickery and precocity clicked into place, when talk of a golden generation was not, perhaps, so far fetched, when Van proved he could be "The Man". And when, Emmanuel Eboué finally showed why Arsène Wenger has so much faith in him, when Samir Nasri looked like a rare talent and Denilson a dominant midfielder. If only Arsenal – and Nicklas Bendtner in particular – could finish.
A place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League beckons in two weeks if Wenger can patch up his side in time. Abou Diaby, hailed as "outstanding" by his manager, limped off with a calf strain, and although Emmanuel Adebayor may be fit, few others are likely to return.
Arsenal blew Roma away but, at the end, they had only Robin van Persie's first-half penalty and a bucketful of missed chances to reflect on. An ugly thought, but there was great beauty in their football, great admiration for their bold, lightning-quick approach.
"That's a regret we have tonight," Wenger later admitted of the slender score-line. "There was room to score more goals. But after tonight we know we can create chances. You never know what is the right result in the European Cup. But we did not concede a goal. If we score in Rome then it should be enough."
If Arsenal play with the same verve and imagination, they will overpower the Italians once again. And for that Wenger, too, has to take great credit. He altered the formation, pushing Van Persie further up the pitch to make him the point of the attack and placing Nasri in a more central position with Eboué attacking from deep along with Diaby. "We looked very dangerous going forward," Wenger said.
They even coped with starting the second-half with just nine men. Referee Claus Bo Larsen restarted the game, with Kolo Touré and William Gallas still in the dressing room. The pair panicked, with Touré running on to the pitch – and getting cautioned for entering the field of play without the referee's permission. "It was our fault," Wenger said. "You have to be ready. William was having treatment and Kolo goes out last so he was waiting."
How Roma must have wished neither central defender had returned at all. They looked shell-shocked for much of the encounter. Their coach, Luciano Spalletti, said: "They [Arsenal] were different from what I saw in their last games and considering what they have been going through. They gave us a lot of difficulties," he said. Still he rated the tie weighted just 51/49 in Arsenal's favour and promised "a different game in the return leg".
Arsenal quickly hit their stride last night with Nasri crossing for Bendtner to waste a host of chances. Roma rued the absence of the injured Juan with his replacement, Simone Loria, a lumbering presence alongside Philippe Mexes who struggled to control Van Persie throughout. To prove that point, Diaby floated the ball to Van Persie, who chested down but was thwarted by Doni before Bendtner cleverly dinked a pass through to his strike partner. Van Persie took the ball on, drew a foul from Mexes, who caught his right foot inside the area, and then drove the penalty low into the net.
Van Persie was in action again when he burst through again clipping the ball back to Bendtner who was blocked. The Dane was unlucky there but was soon guilty of a ghastly miss. Eboué set off on another run, before feeding Van Persie who slipped a pass on to Bendtner. With time, space and only Doni to beat he blazed over. "He lacks a little bit spontaneous attitude at the moment," Wenger said of his misfiring striker. "He wants to do so well."
Diaby did better, drawing a fine block from Doni with a low shot before a horrendous mistake by Loria, misjudging Clichy's cross-field pass, allowed Eboué in. He delayed, defenders retreated, and finally his shot whistled wide. Roma almost stole a goal when John Arne Riise sent in one of his fierce shots from distance that went frighteningly close.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Touré, Gallas, Clichy; Eboué (Ramsey, 82), Diaby (Song, 62), Denilson, Nasri; Van Persie, Bendtner (Vela, 67). Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Djourou, Gibbs, Merida.
Roma (4-4-2): Doni; Motta, Loria (Diamoutene, 72), Mexes, Riise; Taddei, De Rossi, Perrotta, Brighi (Pizarro, 56); Totti, Baptista (Vucinic, 82). Substitutes not used: Artur (gk), Filipe, Tonetto, Montella.
Referee: C Bo Larsen (Denmark).Reuse content