Following Arsenal’s embarrassing showing in Milan three weeks ago, Arsene Wenger described them as “shocking” and claimed they had “2% or 5% chance” of qualification. One expletive-filled rant, a magnificent comeback against Tottenham and a win as scraped as a frosty windscreen in the depths of winter against Liverpool later, he had changed his tune somewhat, proclaiming that they, as a team, believed they could “make the impossible possible”.
Arsenal had been beyond abject in the first leg. On that evidence alone there was no chance, but as soon as the game commenced, they charged forward with a real intensity and desire, pressing Milan high up the pitch and looking to snatch an early goal. The goal itself said more about Milan on the evening than it did Arsenal. The corner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a good one and it met its target, Laurent Koscielny, who was inexplicably given the chance of a free header by the rather uninterested marking of Ignazio Abate, while no man remained on the back post. This was Milan’s charter going into the game - they did not appear to give Arsenal any respect or consideration as actual challengers until they fell a further two goals behind. While the Italians were struggling to feign disappointment, the Londoners took hope and continued as they had started.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had one of his customary quiet nights in the Champions League, though his masterful performance in the first leg may see its way to casting aside that criticism. He dwelt offside for most of the game, appearing momentarily to challenge for the ball and subsequently receive a free kick on account of his being on the floor, despite the minimal contact that came his way. To say the referee favoured either team would be incorrect; he was simply inept at this level, a fact which was well-exploited by a far more experienced and wily Milan side.
Arsenal got another chance to score when Tomas Rosicky intercepted another lackadaisical pass from the Milanese side’s back line, but a poor ball from him to Robin van Persie and an even worse return pass from the Dutchman meant the chance went begging. Though with three quarters of the game still remaining on the clock, the feeling around the ground was that more chances would come; there was not long to wait. Absolving his error which led to the aforementioned missed opportunity, it was Tomas Rosicky - his second goal in three, after just over a year without one. Theo Walcott sent a threatening, yet rather weak cross into the penalty area. The pathetic clearance from Thiago Silva was most uncharacteristic of the defender many perceive to be the world’s best and it fell straight to the Czech captain, whose shot was more akin to a pass, yet snuck past Christian Abbiati at the near-post all the same.
The intense nature of Arsenal’s pressing increased as they searched for a third before half time. They reaped the rewards of this very swiftly, as Oxlade-Chamberlain was upended in the penalty box and with the crowd brimming with excitement and hope, van Persie stepped up. Then waited, as his compatriot Mark van Bommel engaged in a little more gamesmanship by deliberating with the referee as to whether the ball was on the spot, hence delaying the kick and putting more pressure on van Persie. The Premier League’s leading scorer did not appear to care, promptly dispatching his penalty with seeming ease.
Half time arrived a few minutes later. A four-goal deficit was now down to just one. 45 minutes remained; Milan looked hopeless and Arsenal excellent. The home side needed to persist with their high pressure and the visitors needed to wake up a little and start taking their opponents more seriously. While Milan did what was needed, Arsenal no longer could. Most of their players had played three times in 10 days and were struggling after such an energy-consuming half. They were succumbing to fatigue shortly after the third goal, and were very nearly punished as Stephan El-Shaarawy curled a good chance wide of the post. It was a both let off and reminder of the threat Milan posed for Arsenal. Their best and only real chance of the second half came early.
On a counter attack, Gervinho’s deflected effort fell awkwardly for Abbiati and he only managed to parry the ball rather than hold it. It did not land far from him and as van Persie stormed in, he attempted to chip the veteran Italian, only for his effort to be extremely well saved. This was to be Arsenal’s point of rue come the end of the game but in reality there was little more he could do; there was not enough space for him to go either side of the goalkeeper and the only possible method of conversion was the chip. It did not work, and so Arsenal needed to keep attacking and pray another such chance. Their legs were tiring but their spirit was unhampered.
Arsene Wenger said after the game that he felt the midfield needed changing. Only with no Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby, Yossi Benayoun, Aaron Ramsey, Francis Coquelin or Emmanuel Frimpong meant that the three on the field (Chamberlain, Rosicky and Alex Song) were the only three left. Chamberlain needed to be replaced. The attacking stronghold of the Arsenal bench was a man who has scored two goals in 16 months, Marouane Chamakh, though he does offer an aerial threat. Arsenal had another piece of fortune when Alberto Nocerino somehow contrived to miss from two yards out, but Milan never had any real control over the game. Such was Wenger’s desperation that he sent on Park Ju-Young - a player in whom he clearly has no trust, having only given him 6 minutes of playing time in the Premier League and not a second in the Champions League until the point. He did little to prove his manager was mistaken in his mistrust. Indeed, on what could have been Arsenal’s final counter attack, Alex Song saw Park with space down the left hand side; it was an easy ball to play, but he instead played the more difficult and risky pass to Rosicky. The players clearly share their Wenger’s opinion of the former South Korea captain.
Although the Gunners continued ploughing forward, it was all in vain. The image that defined the day more than another other was seeing Rosicky, Arsenal’s man of the match by several furlongs, collapsed on the Emirates turf, his face painting a picture of despair, his slumped body of a man who simply could not run any more. Arsenal fans had hope and belief, but no expectation of a victory beforehand. It was only their wonderful play in the first half that made the disappointment that came their way possible. 11 games remain in the Premier League season: they have won all four of their last four games and this win will only aid their momentum. Four points behind Tottenham, three clear of Chelsea, a place in the top four is theirs to surrender and if replicate the way they played for the first 45 minutes over the course of the remainder of the season, they will undoubtedly be back in UEFA’s premier club competition.
Relations between the club’s management and playing stuff had grown a little fraught between some areas of the fanbase and the club itself after the first leg result and the 2-0 FA Cup loss to Sunderland which followed, but they restored some pride for themselves and for the fans. It was heartening for them to see the players fight so hard and look so devastated when the full time whistle confirmed their battle had yielded no on-pitch results. But even with the final scoreline, it was not a pointless endeavour. They managed to separate losing and losing with dignity; it is not a distinction that matters to those who will say that winning is everything and anything less is worthless, and that the difference is minimal anyway, but anyone who had seen the performances in both legs would know that the manner of defeat makes all the difference. The overwhelming feeling from the Arsenal support post-match was pride, but they must use their pain as a foundation for success, starting with ascertaining Champions League football for next season.
And what now for AC Milan? A place in the quarter finals of the Champions League while they sit atop Serie A soften the minor blow of a rather poor 3-0 loss. They showed that they are very capable of challenging Europe’s elite with their impressive group stage performances against Barcelona, but they must not write off this near miss as a shred of good luck. It should act as guidance to them not to believe their own ability will see them all the way through to the end of the season and that they must stay alert at all times. They have very legitimate challengers in Juventus, who are only two points behind them, so they must hope - and ensure - that their slips remain at the Emirates and they do not allow anything similar to happen again.