Gunners seek to build on spirit of Rome


LONDON, March 13 – Theo Walcott might have been overstating it when he claimed Arsenal's euphoria in progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals felt like "winning the World Cup final".

THEO_WALCOTTBut few would dispute that the club’s triumph over AS Roma felt like a defining moment.

Arsene Wenger, the manager, has insisted all season that nothing can shake the faith he has invested in his young squad and, in the palatial surroundings of the Stadio Olimpico, they repaid that loyalty with interest.

A dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Luciano Spalletti’s team not only ensured a place in the last eight of Europe’s elite cup competition for the third time in four seasons, but also gave the clearest indication yet that this team is on the cusp of maturity.

The challenge now is for Arsenal to show the same determination and drive which carried them over the line in Rome into their Premier League encounter with Blackburn on Saturday.

A meeting with Rovers is, perhaps, the ultimate come-down for a team still on a dizzying high from conquering the Eternal City but Arsenal cannot afford wandering minds at the Emirates.

For all the positive press garnered by their recent recovery, their wretched start to the campaign means Wenger’s team still lags behind Aston Villa in the race for the fourth Champions League qualification spot. The gap currently stands at three points and, with Villa not in action until Sunday, when they meet Tottenham, a home game against struggling opponents represents an inviting opportunity to overhaul Martin O’Neill’s stuttering side.

Encouragingly for Wenger, that message is not lost on his players. "We seem to have had our bad spell and now hopefully we can have a good one and push for those Champions League spots," Walcott said.

"The win against Roma was amazing. For such a young team who haven’t experienced it to win on penalties just shows the character we have in the whole side. The dressing room after the game was like we had just won the World Cup final.

"The atmosphere is brilliant, even though there are all sorts of nationalities in there, we all get along and we’re like family. They are just a brilliant bunch of lads to play with.

"But the main thing now is Saturday and the Premier League. We have to concentrate on that and forget about Europe."

If ever an opposing team could help to focus Arsenal’s concentration, it would be one led by Sam Allardyce. The Rovers manager is something of a bete noir for Wenger, having regularly upset him during his spell in charge of Bolton.

The Frenchman was a very public critic of Wanderers’ muscular approach and the pair played out several spats in the media, usually after a Bolton victory.

While the majority of the Premier League’s managerial set welcomed back Allardyce with open arms when he took up the Ewood Park post in December, Wenger was not among them. The latest encounter between the pair on Saturday is likely to be followed by the briefest and coldest of handshakes.

Allardyce is, himself, sitting more comfortably after the midweek win over Fulham put more daylight between his new side and the relegation zone. A second victory in the English capital on Saturday, and safety – a pipe dream when he took charge – will seem within reach.

"We’re relieved to be out of the relegation zone for a bit," he said. "Continuing to see yourselves in the bottom three doesn’t help, even though you tell the players not to look at the papers.

"It’s impossible not to see it, not to see where you are, it’s in your face all the time. People are talking about relegation all the time when you’re in that position. Now they can look at the papers if they want to!"