Arsenal 3 – 0 AC Milan
1 – 0 Koscielny (7)
2 – 0 Rosicky (26)
3 – 0 van Persie (43 pen)
Beforehand all that everyone could agree on was that the performance had to restore pride. That happened; my goodness me, how that happened. How anyone cannot be proud of the players’ endeavours last night is beyond me, beyond comprehension even.
It was a match that captured the essence of knockout cup football. Overwhelming obstacles almost overcome; hopes raised, belief instilled albeit in some cases just for the occasion. There were no first night nerves in this one night stand. It highlighted how perverse and tired the format group format has become.
As I mentioned in the preview yesterday, there was a sense of jumpers for goalposts about the match; the next goal wins. Milan score first and tie was over. Arsenal score and score early; dare to believe. And Laurent Koscielny duly obliged. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner was met by the Frenchman who had found space in the area, delivering a calm and assured finish. It was the perfect start, the one that was required to drive the team and start to put doubts in the mind of the Milanese.
The momentum was building. van Persie’s shot might have been comfortably saved by Abbiati, the signal of intent could not be missed. Milan were not allowed to settle on the ball, forced into working hard to close Arsenal down as the hosts sought to use all of the width of the pitch.
Arsenal’s expansive passing and movement was underlining the impact of the decision to disrupt the flanks of the San Siro by relaying the pitch. A second goal before the interval would have made the second half interesting.
It duly arrived from a resurgent Tomas Rosicky. The Czech’s inspired form of recent weeks has seen him find the back of the net with the regularity that Arsenal have been missing from their midfielders. Theo Walcott put his head down and charged toward the byline, the cross was almost as aimless as Thiago’s clearance. Rosicky shimmied before caressing the ball into the back of the net, beating Abbiati at his near post. No haste but plenty of guided power in the finish.
The lid of the box of dreams was being pushed open, the Champions League desperate to be released.
As the half wore on the dream became more real, kicking and screaming it’s way toward freedom, an outcome that became believable as the interval loomed. Oxlade-Chamberlain squirmed and wriggled in the area but Milanese bulkheads blocked his path, illegally and suitably punished as van Persie buried the spot-kick, sending Abbiati the wrong way.
The half-time whistle came, too soon, unnecessarily. Milan were rolling as Arsenal rocked; the break enabled them to clear their heads, have the fug fully removed. Perhaps Arsenal needed it too; El Shaarawy drilled his shot wide when hitting the target was easier. Had it gone in, the dream would have been shackled and dumped unceremoniously away once more.
A lack of ambition had gone close to killing the visitors in the opening half, the second would see them attempt to press more. Arsenal reverted to a counter-attacking style, one that ceded impetus to some extent. Yet it almost bore fruit fifteen minutes after the restart.
And how the score remained at three is still a mystery. Gervinho’s shot was too much for Abbiati to hold onto, the ball fell to van Persie and Hollywood took over the world, spinning it at a slower speed as the Dutchman flicked his shot upwards and over Abbiati toward an unguarded Italian net. How the goalkeeper stopped the ball before it reached it’s apex is a mystery. It baffled him as well since he was unable to detect it’s location when his parry stopped the ball’s flight. Aretha might have said a little prayer but I would venture that i Rossonerri are offering as many prayers of thanks to their respective gods as is possible.
In hindsight, it was a pivotal moment. Had the ball finished in the next, it is not unbelivable that the final score would have been six or more. As it was Ibrahimovic nearly brought the mountain back to full size, seizing on slack distribution by Szczesny but firing wide.
The introduction Chamakh and Park brought no breakthrough. It brought home the iniquity of the transfer window; I wonder if the manager pondered for a moment over what might have been had Henry or Arshavin or both been on the bench to call upon?
Nocerino had two late openings in quick succession, Szczesny’s shotstopping qualities not in doubt with two fine saves.
But the goal to usher in extra-time would not arrive. The energy levels expended in the opening seventy minutes possibly meant that was welcomed by the players on a physical level but any thoughts of tiredness would have been banished by the mental boost of a fourth.
The match petered out but you could tell from the players reactions how close they felt they had come to making the impossible seem possible. Anguish and pride were etched on experienced faces; heroic failure on the football pitch. And a realisation of what might have been had the first leg not been cast into the four winds.
Many positives come from the result, not just in keeping a winning momentum going. After all, successive cup defeats had not negatively impacted on Premier League form. I think more will be gained from the comprehensive manner of victory; Milan were brushed away with ease. They may not have the calibre of Baresi or Maldini at the back but still they haunt the upper echelons of Serie A. Quality opposition reduced to distinctly average.
I hope this has a galvanising effect on both support and players. Knowing that such heights of performance can be reached should instill belief for the remainder of this campaign. Hope should never die.