This was a massive night for Arsenal, Roma, Valencia and Ajax and the Highbury fans with their customary late arrival from the pubs on the alcohol free European nights were up for it.
Our starting line-up was one that included some players who were probably not quite fully fit, but key games call for key players and those given the star roles tonight included the returning Bergkamp to partner Henry and the returning Gilberto to partner the world's current best midfield player. Saturday's substitutes Pires and Wiltord played wide. The remainder of the team were as you'd expect except for Cygan replacing the injured Sol Campbell. And on tonight's bench hoping for a piece of the action we had Taylor, Stepanovs, Parlour, Toure, Kanu, Jeffers and Ljungberg.
Roma kicked off towards the North Bank in an all black kit with bright orange numbers. The usual cagey opening period saw Arsenal looking the more positive, Henry almost set up Bergkamp and Vieira took early control in midfield. Panucci blocked a Henry run and we won a corner from the free kick. The corner on the right was fired in by Van Bronckhorst and Pat lost his marker by standing on the goal line and moving out towards the six yard box as the ball came in. He got up high headed down powerfully and it was 1-0 with twelve minutes gone.
Big handball appeal as Thierry jumped for a header. Totti hauled Keown to the ground for a free kick but no yellow. Brilliant ball by Pat to Dennis who could only win a corner. Pat was involved again as Rob hit in a wicked cross and the header was tipped around the post by the tall Pelizolli in goal. Because of the earlier incident I'd taken to keeping an eye on Totti and he was doing his best to wind up Martin, we had the perfect view from the West lower as Totti took a look and swung back his elbow at Keown's head. From where I sat there looked to be contact but I'd also say that Martin made the most of it, as no doubt Totti would given the same circumstances. For my money it was an obvious red card.
The game got a bit silly as every contact for a while was awarded with a free kick. Fabulous control and ball by Dennis to Wiltord. For a while it looked as though Urs Meier, one of the better refs in Europe, would lose control but he had enough of Cassano's lippy protests and awarded him a yellow card. Tommasi kept the pot boiling with some theatrics that might have worked well in Swan Lake but Gio on this occasion might have deserved his yellow card. Samuel took out Dennis from behind and also picked up a yellow card as the free kick just outside the box was taken by Henry. A low easy save from his kick followed.
Another great move down our left flank preceded three minutes added time, most of which was for Totti's refusal to leave the pitch when he was sent off. Cassano took a long pass from Emerson, beat our square defence and was played onside by Cygan, I think. Seaman came out to the edge of his box but Cassano netted with their only shot of the game so far. His piss taking celebrations might have warranted a card if he hadn't already been booked. So once more we'd screwed up on the European stage, we'd dominated the half but gone in at half time level pegging.
The second half started with Cygan and Seaman giving away a ridiculous corner. Dennis broke and set up Wiltord with a golden opportunity that the keeper saved. This chance became typical of the half which was all about Arsenal attacking against an eight or nine man defence to no effect. Roma had some rare flurries as when Emerson was left one on one with Keown but it was basically one way traffic. It pisses me off that the crowd were getting on Sylvain's back but he wasn't having his greatest game of the season by any stretch of the imagination.
Gilberto to Pires to Dennis - offside. Dennis set up Wiltord who fired over. Vieira did some great stuff to set Rob up on a fantastic mazy run and he worked a great opening but also fired over when it looked all set to be goal of the round. Henry got through and he too fired over. Henry set up Dennis who scuffed a shot wide. A rare Roma counter was followed by Montella replacing Cassano to take over the lone striker role. A Gio free kick hit their wall and you could just tell it was going to be yet another one of those European nights where we can't break down a massed defence.
Aldair took out Vieira in exchange for another yellow card. Tommasi was just about standing on the ball when we tried to take the free kick but he got away with it. More frustrating play after good build ups followed before Dennis and Sylvain were replaced by Franny and Freddie with seventeen minutes to go. Another massive scramble in their box ended with an offside call. Rob turned well but as was the custom on the night he fired over. Gilberto unleashed the only low shot I recall but his pile-driver was just wide. We also tried no end of one-twos in and around their box and one from Freddie and Thierry was mighty close to coming off.
Cafu looked offside as he hit over a cross for Montella to head over. Three minutes before time Kanu came on for Lauren but that's a ridiculously short period of time to make any impact even with the four minutes added time. So it ended 1-1 and despite the fact that we played almost all the football, knocked the ball around well, dominated the match and had an enormous number of shots by European standards we failed to wrap it up. It was a totally frustrating night that had promised much. No Arsenal fan doubts that on our day we can beat anyone in the world, that's a given. If however we are up against a team with a deep, packed, organised defence I for one will certainly not be betting my life on it.
A point or more in Valencia will still be enough, but on tonight's showing that looks to be a tough task.