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Monday, 23 February 2009

Champions League Preview; Arsenal v Roma


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Some say this is where the Champions League really starts, as the 16 surviving teams get ready for two-legged knockout action beginning this week.

One of those 16 is Arsenal, who will be looking to put their Premier League troubles behind them when they meet AS Roma at the Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night (February 24). The Gunners’ 0-0 draw at home to Sunderland at the weekend was their fourth successive league draw, three of which have been goalless. It meant that they stayed fifth in the table, still six points behind Aston Villa in the chase to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

So wouldn’t winning this year’s competition be a great way of ensuring their presence in next season’s? Yet thoughts of the final are a long way off, as Arsene Wenger’s side prepare to face a side who themselves are struggling to make that all-important top four in Serie A. Roma, who will host this year’s Champions League final at the end of May, lie sixth in the Italian top flight with 13 matches remaining. They are closer to the top four than Arsenal however, with fourth placed Fiorentina currently only two points better off than Luciano Spelletti’s side.

Arsenal will go in to the first leg without several key members of their squad. Injuries have been a problem all season, and Cesc Fabregas, Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott all still missing. Joining the injury list for this one are strikers Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo, who has picked up a hamstring so soon after returning from a year out with one of most famous broken legs of recent history.

New signing Andriy Arshavin will also miss out having played for Zenit St.Petersburg in the group stages of the competition. All of which has prompted some bizarre comments from Wenger in which he has questioned the cup-tie ruling on the grounds that Zenit are no longer involved in the competition. Maybe the pressure is finally getting to the Frenchman, although he did generously admit responsibility for signing the Russian armed with the knowledge that he would be unavailable in Europe.

With all these absentees look for Nicklas Bendtner to partner Robin van Persie in attack, while Abou Diaby looks likely to overcome a thigh problem to take his place in midfield. A once fluid and silky engine room is now looking worryingly workmanlike, with Denilson, Samir Nasri and Alexandre Song failing to spark the imagination in the way that Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and company once did.

Among the more familiar members of the Roma squad are Italian internationals Francesco Totti, Daniele Di Rossi, Alberto Aquilani and the English-born Simone Perrotta. Former Arsenal striker Julio Baptiste will be hopeful of a start against his erstwhile employers, while ex-Liverpool full-back John Arne Riise has been turning in some assured performances after a shaky start to his Roma career. Riise helped Liverpool knock Arsenal out of last season’s Champions League at the quarter-final stage and will be out to help break north London hearts once more.

Being English, Arsenal are favourites with most British bookmakers to prevail. The performance of the English sides in last season’s Champions League seems to have convinced most observers that they are the dominant force at the moment. Despite all of their domestic troubles the Gunners will be have all of the expectation upon them, although a quick survey of Italian pundits might illustrate a similar home bias. The reality is that these are two sides with decidedly shaky form trying to make a big splash in an often unpredictable tournament. Anything really could happen.

History gives us few clues, with the sides having met on just two occasions. Both of these were in the now defunct second group stage of the 2002/03 competition, with Arsenal winning 3-1 in the Italian capital and drawing 1-1 at Highbury. Neither went on to qualify for the quarter finals that season, finishing behind Valencia and Ajax in the group.

This time around one is guaranteed a last eight berth, and this first leg clash could tell us much about which one that might be. Playing at home will place yet more expectation on the Arsenal side, who need to rediscover their goalscoring touch if they are to progress. Predictions are difficult and fool-hardy, but at neck-sticking-out time a narrow Arsenal win seems plausible.

By Stephen Orford, 23 February 2009

Arsenal vs Roma; Kick Off 7:45pm 24 Feb 2009

Prediction Panel
Our panel contains both Squarefootball writers and readers, the writers are marked: (sqf).

Chris Goodwin : 1 - 1
Colin Illingworth (sqf) : 2-0
Hugh Larkin (sqf) : 1 - 1
Antony Melvin (sqf) : 1 - 0
Stephen Orford (sqf) : 2 - 1
Mark Williams : 1 - 0

Panel Verdict
The panel is expecting a narrow Arsenal win.

Home: 4; Draw: 2; Away: 0.

* Do we have it right, or do you know better? Please don't bother with derisory comments on the predictions after the match - unless you also pulled us up before it!

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Stephen Orford

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