Venimus, Vidimus, Vicimus

Last updated : 02 December 2002 By Bernard Azulay

The following morning I found myself standing in the long-term car park willing a bus to come along as the minutes ticked away, wondering quite how foolish I would feel if I missed the plane for a sake of a few quid in parking fees. It was when a bus drove right past those of us gathered at the stop that I really began to panic, as images popped into my head from the TV series 'Airport' of all those angry people, unable to board their plane after arriving at this same terminal mere seconds after the check-in had closed. I looked to the four lads standing beside me, seeking reassurance from their relaxed manner. Only to discover that these weren't Gooners but tranquil tokers on route to the coffee shops of Amsterdam.

Once again I found myself frantically dashing into an airport, albeit this time the less familiar surroundings of Luton. Scanning the terminal for a clue as to the correct check-in desk, my anxiety level leaped another notch at the sight of a screen that no longer displayed which check-in, but the departure gate instead. Mercifully I was breathing much easier a few moments later, with a precious boarding pass in my hand that meant I didn't have to fret about joining a lengthy queue snaking its way to the security controls.

I didn't think anyone actually adhered to the minimum two hour check-in time stated on ones ticket, but from the collection of glasses piled up on the tables, some of the Gooners gathered in the departure hall pub must have been there all night. I marvel at the mettle of these resolute revellers. I was fatigued by just the thought of the 20 hour schlep to the Eternal City and back and would be struggling to stay on my feet sober. Not since Dynamo Kiev a couple of years back had I travelled with the hard-core on one of these day trips. Thankfully the cheap air travel of recent times has meant that Róna and I have often been able to make a two or three day jaunt out of most European matches, for less than the cost of one of these organized awaydays. No such luck last week and so Ró thought it better to watch the game on the box, on the basis that we could put the 160 odd quid saved, towards some spring sunshine and a short sojourn in Benidorm for the Valencia game.

I managed to stay awake on the plane just long enough to get into a lather about the Arsenal related headlines. An injury to Luzhny left me terrified at the thought of taking to the field against Totti and co., in the imposing surroundings of the Stadio Olimpico with a terribly inexperienced right-back. Apparently the club only sold 900 tickets. Yet as our convoy of eight coaches headed into the city, flanked by a fleet of police vehicles and motor cycle outriders, all with their sirens blaring, holding up the traffic as we hared along in traditional Italian style, frustrated Formula One drivers at the wheel, we felt like an invading Arsenal army.

Having not had the pleasure of Florence or Venice, Rome remains one of my favourite cities. It is easy to become blasé because every other building has a beautiful frontage, or an entrance leading to a fabulously ornate portico. Moreover even a confirmed shop-a-phobic like myself requires blinkers walking around downtown, to avoid being drawn into every other shop by some stylish item in the window. Even the relative dross in Rome's equivalent of Woolies is dripping with panache. I managed to make nightfall without dropping my miniscule bundle and was blown away to find myself overheating in a thin sweater, at an outdoor table savouring a delicious bowl of pasta (why does it never taste nearly so good in this country?), only a day or two before December. A t-shirt would have been far more useful than the superfluous scarf, gloves and hat stuffed in my knapsack.

It will be nearly three months before our next awayday in Amsterdam and I had therefore managed my finances to ensure I had most of my Euros left for nicotine manoeuvres. A scout round several tobacconists on route to the stadium resulted in a collection of nine cartons of Camel. Ninety packs of fags at a saving of nearly three quid a pack on the price over here, you do the maths! What with a belly full of G-d's best grub on a warm winter's evening, it was a worthwhile outing no matter what the result. And that was before I'd even reached the stadium, where the exploding firecrackers and the roar of the Roman crowd had the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention.

Although Roma fans don't appear to have quite such a dastardly reputation as their right-wing Lazio rivals (with their racist "Auschwitz is your country, the gas chambers your home" banners!) , the scare stories of razor blade slashings were sufficient to ensure that most Gooners sought security in numbers, by taking the coaches to the ground. Naturally I was far too late and took a taxi as near as the traffic would allow. I was glad not to be flying the Gooner flag in any way while walking the couple of hundred metres towards this magnificent stadium. It gradually filled my entire field of view like some enormous phosphorus space invader. While I might be able to pass muster with my Mediterranean origins, I was worried that my carrier bag full of cartons of fags might make me somewhat conspicuous. My greatest concern was getting them past the 'carabinieri' without having the whole lot confiscated as offensive weapons.

With all the history of bad blood between the British and Italian fans, we've suffered subsequent grievous bodily harm at the hands of their old bill. Luckily my being late meant that they were far less guarded and they all had a good laugh, looking at me like I was a particularly nervous, heavy-smoking lunatic. Once inside I encountered one far too game Gooner for his own good. After foolishly walking to the stadium wearing his gold Arsenal shirt he'd apparently received a warm welcome by way of a belt whipping and was wandering around proudly showing off his war wounds. I have some delightful memories of our last visit to Rome, specifically the image of Gilles Grimandi decking Diego Simeone during a 1-1 draw with Lazio. They pale by comparison to those I am left with after last Wednesday. It might not have been one of the greatest games, but it will undoubtedly be remembered in years to come amongst my favourite trips.

On the night we benefited from a brilliant referee. Either he's a fully paid up member of the Arsenal supporters club, or perhaps his family suffered at the hands of Mussolini but he certainly wasn't a homer, as a weaker personality might have been pressurized by the crowd into awarding Roma at least a couple of penalties. With almost every decision going our way it made a pleasant change from the Premiership, where certain officials could be accused of a crusade to even out any Arsenal advantage.

In previous years we've come a cropper on the continent because contempt for British footie has enabled foreign sides to play with a relaxed freedom. If I can deduce one thing from rogering the Romans, it is that this victory denotes a decided change in attitude towards the Arsenal. Roma's tentative approach on home soil suggested far more respect than we've been used to in the past. They were rightly terrified of Thierry Henry who hit the back of the net in suitable style, with each of his three attempts on goal. Whereas I was a little disappointed with the likes of Pires and Ljungberg, who I imagined would have a field day on the wide open wings of such an expansive pitch. We had to wait until Saturday against Villa to see Pires' confidence boosted to the point where he was prepared to push a ball past an opponent and beat him for pace.

I cannot agree with those pundits who have opined about the difference this season being due to an Arsenal side that can envisage themselves playing in a European final. It is true that as Champions there is an increasing swagger to our style of play. But to my mind the most influential aspect of the Arsenal's incredibly entertaining brand of football, is the fear and respect it has instilled in our opponents. Gordon Strachan's Southampton succeeded by not being intimidated (aided by a lack of respect on our part).

With Henry too hot to handle and Ruud on a roll, this weekend will be billed as a battle to decide the best. While Van Nistelroy's per annum strike rate might eventually prove greater, I know which one I prefer to watch. However when Saturday comes it will be the side whose play is hindered by the the least amount of fear that will out. Considering the prospect of a United team with relatively little combat experience, I have a feeling this game will provide a clue as to whether Fergie's fire still burns bright enough to ensure his young charges are far more frightened of a post match chastisement than they are of the Champions. Far more importantly, I haven't the foggiest how I am going to make it to Manchester for a midday kick-off. I should probably set out now!

I might have been hoping for a draw but it is probably in our interest that United beat Liverpool because we are likely to benefit from being under slightly more pressure to get a result at Old Trafford. However it is comforting to know that a bad result wouldn't be the end of the world. If there is a black cloud, it is the strain on the club of the new stadium project. The price appears to be inflating at a ridiculous rate, reaching a frightening £275 million almost twice the original estimate. The club were rather vague about their clever plan to create a company to keep the stadium project completely separate from the club. This cannot be the case in practice, when there are groans from every department of the Gunners about the pressure being applied by two new bean counters solely employed to bug the staff about increasing receipts. As winter draws on and injuries and suspensions take their inevitable toll, I only hope the tightening of belts all round doesn't impact on our season. Surely Leicester should be sufficient warning to the folly of trying to fill a stadium without a successful side!