Fear not, Arsène – away goals may see you home

Wenger wants to scrap rule but all four English clubs can progress
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The Independent Football

Arsène Wenger suggested before the Champions' League resumed at the knockout stage last week that the away-goals rule should be scrapped, or at least amended. As he is a student of the world game, who spends more time watching televised football than most married men would dare, his views should be respected, but the evidence of the past week did not support his case.

In fact Arsenal's game against Roma at the Emirates on Tuesday did the precise opposite. The visitors, routed 7-1 at Old Trafford a couple of years ago, showed no great ambition other than to keep the score down this time, falling back in numbers and defending with such stereotypical Italian cynicism that two of their number were booked for fouls in the opening 25 minutes.

Wenger's argument is that the rule as it stands forces home teams to play too defensively, for fear of conceding an away goal, which is the opposite of what was intended.

Arsenal, whatever he may have told them about not conceding, showed an inclination to attack and should have won by more than Robin van Persie's penalty. They are now in an excellent position for the second leg, when one goal in the Olympic Stadium from their swift counterattacking would require Roma to score three times to eliminate them. As it is, Roma must win by at least 2-0, in which case they would deserve to go through.

Internazionale's first-half performance at home to Manchester United the same night was defensive, but only because Jose Mourinho on his own admission likes to adopt that policy against United. Indeed, he believes it to be the reason for his excellent record against Sir Alex Ferguson.

Before taking on United in the 2007 FA Cup final, he asked his Chelsea players: "Do you want to enjoy the game or enjoy after the game?" They settled for a winner's medal, and on an afternoon that was supposed to be a celebration of that magical competition's return to Wembley, there was little enjoyment for anyone. But Chelsea had their medals and Mourinho, having insisted on having a minimum of six players behind the ball whenever United were in possession, had his tactical triumph.

At the San Siro last week he adopted the same tactics, and United's positive approach was exactly what the away-goals rule was designed to encourage; it was one of those footballing freaks that they did not manage to score one.

Real Madrid at home to Liverpool were not cowed by fear of conceding, but were merely poor. "We knew how important it was to score an away goal and to keep a clean sheet," said Rafa Benitez, who was naturally delighted to have achieved both aims in the latest of a series of conservative but successful away performances in Europe. To have done it with little input from their two most important players, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, was all the more praiseworthy and should pave the way for a fourth quarter-final in five seasons.

In the third Anglo-Italian confrontation, the Juventus of yesteryear, had they not had the incentive of an away goal to play for at Chelsea, would have illustrated Wenger's graphic description of the bad old days "when teams went away from home, played with 10 defenders and kicked every ball into the stand". Instead, having conceded an early goal to the rejuvenated Didier Drogba, Juve pushed forward and were several times close to an equaliser in a match of 31 shots on goal.

So, unlike Bayern Munich's extraordinary 5-0 success against Sporting Lisbon, there is no more than a single goal separating any of the teams in the four English ties. What of the prospects? It was significant that Guus Hiddink was less satisfied with a 1-0 home victory than Mourinho would have been, but Ashley Cole said: "It's always good not to concede a goal and our main aim was just to win the game. Going away from home we always feel we're good enough to get a goal or nick a few, so we're happy with that result."

There speaks a defender, one adaptable enough to have changed his style according to the rapid succession of Chelsea managers and confident enough to tell the club hierarchy: "I do feel we need a bit of stability." The Arsenal players and Liverpool players were also speaking after their games of a 1-0 job well done.

If Ferguson is sleeping pretty well these days, he may still wake up in a sweat after dreaming of Jose running manically down the touchline at Old Trafford again, as he did when Porto triumphed there in similar circumstances; but on the evidence so far it would be as much of an injustice as on that occasion five years ago.

So, it is perfectly possible to envisage all four English teams progressing, and an away goal could help three of them.