Arsenal seek to capitalise on Roma's low confidence

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The Independent Online

The inhabitants of the Eternal City know better than most that all empires are destined to fall but the Italian capital's football teams might have expected their seasons in the sun to number more than two.

The inhabitants of the Eternal City know better than most that all empires are destined to fall but the Italian capital's football teams might have expected their seasons in the sun to number more than two.

It is only 18 months since Roma followed their Tiberian rivals Lazio in lifting the scudetto after many barren years. At last, it seemed, the power of the industrial north, of Milan and Turin, had been broken.

Yet Arsenal last night arrived ahead of tonight's Champions' League tie with Roma to discover it is not only the ancient temples which are in ruins.

So, too, are the ambitions of a new order in Serie A. Lazio, third in the league, are superficially in good shape but their coffers are empty and few expect their challenge to survive. Roma, though relatively solvent, are showing signs of poverty on the pitch. A humbling 3-0 defeat by Parma at the weekend left them ninth in the 18-team league with one win and no clean sheets in six matches. Biased referees are being blamed but the real reason is an inability to score goals, especially when Francesco Totti, the idol of the Quarticciolo and as gifted an Italian No 10 as any since Gianni Rivera, is absent.

That has been the case since 9 November and given his knee problem, would probably continue to be so if Roma were winning. They are not so, in extremis, Fabio Capello is likely to speed Totti back tonight. Similarly Cafu, Brazil's World Cup winning captain and another with a dodgy knee, may also be recalled.

Which is good news for an Arsenal side struggling to regain the consistency and class of autumn and weakened by injuries themselves. It is an indication of their problems that Arsène Wenger is sweating on Oleg Luzhny passing a fitness test. The Ukrainian has a hamstring worry and, with Lauren out with an ankle injury, Kolo Touré suspended and Matthew Upson on loan to Reading, Wenger is short of alternatives. The most likely candidate is the Greek under-21 international Stathis Tavlaridis, who has only three Worthington Cup appearances behind him. This, though, is two more than the German teenager Moritz Volz who was added to the squad after being withdrawn from Monday's reserve game against Watford at half-time.

Martin Keown, who made his comeback from hamstring injury in that game, also travelled but it would be a huge risk to play him. Keown said yesterday that, having already broken down once when coming back too early this season, he does not intend to rush it. In goal David Seaman is a slight doubt with a groin problem but is expected to play.

Dennis Bergkamp, Ray Parlour and Nwankwo Kanu are out, through an aversion to flying and injury respectively, but Wenger has plenty of cover in midfield and forward areas.

Arsenal have never met Roma in competition before but they have played in the Stadio Olimpico against Lazio, most recently in October 2000. Then, with John Lukic in goal, Arsenal earned a draw, and group stage qualification with two matches to spare, through Robert Pires' late goal. With Ajax and Valencia also in Group B no team is likely to cruise through this section as easily but Arsenal are confident of adding to their hosts' problems by making a good start to this second stage. To that end a bright opening could be critical tonight as Roma's confidence will be fragile. Not only are they underperforming in their league they have won only two of their last 10 home games in Europe and failed to score once in their last three home matches against English opposition.

Capello, a European Cup winner with Milan, said this was the most difficult group of all. In time-honoured fashion he complimented his opponents, commenting of Arsenal: "For me they are the strongest side in Europe at the moment. They have players of the highest standard. They have strength, quality and, above all, technique. I like the way they play. They have style."

Usually such praise is aimed at making an opponent complacent. In this case Arsenal hope to make it a case of getting the excuses in early. The visitors may, however, be happy with a point, an aim well within their grasp.

Roma (probable) 3-1-3-1-2: Antonioli; Panucci, Samuel, Zebina; Candela; Fuser (or Cafu), Emerson, Lima; Totti; Delvecchio, Montella.

Arsenal (probable) 4-4-2: Seaman (or Shaaban); Luzhny (or Tavlaridis), Campbell, Cygan, Cole; Ljungberg, Vieira, Gilberto Silva, Edu; Wiltord, Henry.

Referee: L Michel (Slovakia).

GROUP B FIXTURES

Today: Roma v Arsenal; Valencia v Ajax. Tuesday 10 December: Ajax v Roma; Arsenal v Valencia. Tuesday 18 February: Arsenal v Ajax; Roma v Valencia. Wednesday 26 February: Ajax v Arsenal; Valencia v Roma. Tuesday 11 March: Ajax v Valencia; Arsenal v Roma. Wednesday 19 March: Roma v Ajax; Valencia v Arsenal.

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