Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan: Valiant Gunners go down in a blaze of glory
In what was one of the most astonishing matches in recent European history, and certainly in the Emirates stadium’s modest run of existence so far, Arsenal pummelled AC Milan 3-0 and almost overturned a first leg deficit of four goals to take the match into extra time. The London side were untouchable in the first half, running riot over Milan and scoring three goals to send the crowd into frenzy. Things mellowed down in the second after astute tactical play from Milan and injuries to Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott, and the Italian champions sneaked through to the quarter finals.
And there were injury problems for both sides. Arsenal had to do without the services of midfield constant Mikel Arteta, who was recovering from a concussion suffered at Liverpool over the weekend, in addition to Aaron Ramsey, Yossi Benayoun and Abou Diaby. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was handed a start alongside Tomas Rosicky and Alex Song, with Gervinho and Walcott flanking van Persie ahead of them. The defence was as full strength as it could have been.
Milan had several players ruled out for the game, including Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alexander Pato Ambrosini and Clarence Seedorf. The deadly frontline duo of Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic started and this gave Arsenal more than enough to chew on during counter-attacks.
And Arsenal took a Gatling gun to blow Milan right out of the water. Spirited and committed right from the off, the home side were disciplined in defence, confident in midfield and dangerous in attack. They had the bulk of the possession in the opening minutes, and forced a few early corners. From the second one, Chamberlain whipped in an inviting ball, Koscielny smartly lost his marker and headed it in to open the scoring. Arsenal needed an early goal to open the game up and give them something to play for, and they had that now.
Milan tried to slow the game down whenever they had the ball, or string a few passes together before lumping it forward for Ibrahimovic, who found himself persistently offside the entire game. Arsenal on the other hand, played the game in fast forward, both on and off the ball; pinging intelligent balls forward in the former case and haranguing Milan players in the latter.
Midway through the first half, Walcott found himself in space down the right wing and ran at the shaky Milan backline. He fakes this way and that, cut outside and whizzed a low cross in which turned out to be harmless but not so harmless. Thiago Silva hacked at it, when it should have been a comfortable clearance, and the ball fell to Mr. Midas on the night, Tomas Rosicky. He took stock of the situation and placed it into the near corner; two nil up and Ashburton Grove was rocking.
The festive atmosphere reached a fever pitch in the 41st minute, when Chamberlain ran at the petrified rabbits passing off as AC Milan defenders this time. He sped into the box, knocked the ball ahead of him but was clattered into by both Nocerino and Mesbah. The referee pointed to the spot and the roof was lifted off N5. Robin van Persie stepped up, epitome of coolness in a crunch situation, and blasted it into the left corner with Abbiati having no chance whatsoever of saving it.
Arsenal ended the first half on a shaky note, as Milan broke effectively and El Shaarawy was clear through in front of goal. Szczesny came out well to narrow the angle down, and the striker blazed it hopelessly wide. This told Arsenal how narrow the margin was as the half time whistle blew.
Was a much more contained affair, owing both to Arsenal’s energy understandably waning with increased physical exertion, and Milan’s tactical acumen to control the ball without really making many forward forays stifling the game.
Arsenal’s gilt-edged chance to draw level in the tie came on 59 minutes. A stray pass was picked up by Rosicky, who fed it wide to Gervinho. The Ivorian dallied as is his wont, but got the shot away eventually, only for it to take a deflection and cannon off Abbiati’s legs. The rebound came to Robin van Persie, who tried going for the chip instead of power, and Abbiati judged it wonderfully to make the save.
Chamberlain felt a niggle while clearing the ball early in the first half, and was a pale shadow of his effervescent first-half self throughout; hardly busting a gut to get forward, playing only the simplest of passes and getting subbed off after 70 minutes for Chamakh. That injury probably swung the game in Milan’s favour, as Arsenal had no midfielders to call upon from the bench.
Milan had a few chances to grab a goal and kill off the tie once and for all. Szczesny carelessly passed the ball forward, only for it to come to Ibrahimovic, who shot instinctively for the ball to slightly fly wide. Their second and best opportunity came when Aquilani sent an accurate cross to the far post, which was tellingly touched by Nocerino. Szczesny somehow saved the shot after it pin-balled around his legs before he held on to it.
Arsene Wenger sent on Park for Walcott (also injured, with what looked like a dead leg) and Arsenal went for broke in the last ten minutes, but to no avail. They had just given too much in the first half, and exhaustion eventually told.
As the final whistle blew, Arsenal players looked stricken; they had come agonizingly close but fell at the final hurdle. Milan snuck through with Italian luck, Arsenal went down with English pride.