I must admit that my memory of last night’s epic 7-6 penalty-shootout win over Roma is something of a blur. A big, happy, confusing, exhilarating blur.
To condense three hours worth of some of the most stressful football I have every watched is a tough ask, almost as difficult as being forced to watch over the highlights of the game again. As a result, instead of the usual style of match reports I write on this blog, I’ve gone for a bullet-point account of what I remember to be the key points of an intensely stressful but ultimately joyful night:
- Juan scores in the 9th minute to level the tie at 1-1. A mix-up between Gallas and Toure allows the Roma defender to nick in at the far post and he absolutely punishes them for it.
- Almunia makes two fine stops to deny Motta and Taddei. The latter’s shot is going wide but he wasn’t to know and got down very sharply to tip the ball away.
- Our boys muster their only decent chance of a woeful first half when Diaby’s header is aimed directly at Doni.
- A rampaging Motta is denied what I feel was a clear penalty just before the break. Clichy tugged on his shirt but somehow got away with it. Arsenal fortunate to still be level in the tie.
- Riise has a free-kick deflected by Totti’s rear end, but Almunia gets down to save.
- Eboue over-hits a cross-field pass to Bendtner that would have seen the Dane through one-on-one. A disappointing pass given how few chances we were making.
- Roma waste the best chance to double their lead when Baptista somehow fails to connect with Totti’s low pass. An unbelieveable miss.
- The 90 minutes ends with Toure heading over our best chance of the match, set up for him by van Persie.
- I watched the entire extra-time period and cannot for the life of me remember anything interesting happening.
- Our team gets the advantage by being allowed to kick first, but subsitute Eduardo promptly wastes it by having his shot saved. I nearly cried at this point.
- Pizarro – who spend the majority of the game crying about injuries – nails his penalty, as does van Persie.
- My Roma man-crush Vucinic tries to be too clever and has his straight-down-the-middle penalty saved. Great nerves shown by Almunia to stay put.
- Nasri and Montello both score confident penalties. Then Denilson wanders up and does the same, smashing it down the middle.
- At 4-3 and with one Roma kick left, Totti scores a great kick to keep them in it. I was hoping he would miss to make up for knocking Australia out in the 2006 World Cup, but he’s too good for that.
- Things reach boiling point as Toure, Aquilani, Sagna, Riise and Diaby all score.
- Tonetto blasts his shot over the bar and Arsenal win. Unbelievable.
Anyone who watched this game will know how awful it was. On a technical level we were truly horrible, unable to fashion any clear-cut chances and allowing Roma to dictate the pace of the game. But it mattered very little in the end because when the penalties came, on a mental level, we were superb. To score 7 out of 8 penalties as an away team in such a pressure-cooker situation was immense, something that Arsene Wenger spoke about after the game:
“I am proud of the mental strength because that is something which has been questioned a lot in our team. You could see that we have improved tremendously on that front. After conceding a first early goal on a missed cross and missing the first penalty after 120 minutes, you need something special, mental strength to come back and win it.”
And he’s absolutely right. It will be a real boost to players like Denilson and Diaby that they put their kicks away. I have to admit that when those two stepped up – as well as captain Toure – I was absolutely sh*tting myself. In fact, the only player who I didn’t feel that way about when they took their kick was Eduardo, the only player to miss. Football is a funny game like that.
I think it’s also important to make the point of how lucky we are to still be in the Champions League this season. I am one of surely many fans who are still reeling from the injustice of last season’s exit to Liverpool but I have to admit that we were just as fortunate tonight. Motta should have been awarded a penalty and Baptista’s miss was truly awful, the sort of thing that rarely happens at this level. It could and should have been all over in regular time and we can thank our luck stars it wasn’t.
In saying that, I don’t want to take away from the joy and relief of last night’s result. A penalty-shootout victory is always something special (I think Australian fans will especially agree) and the confidence that can flow – a sense of destiny, even – out of it can have a huge impact on a group of players.
As such, let’s celebrate!
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