Advertisements

Arsenal go out with heads held high and all guns blazing

Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0

Koscielny 7, Rosicky 26, van Persie 43 pen

Insert your own cliche about heroic failure or honour in defeat. Arsenal lost this Champions League tie in the first leg, but nearly pulled off the ultimate Houdini act with three first-half goals which had Milan rocking unsteadily before finally squeaking through on a night when Arsene Wenger‘s side showed spirit and desire and no small amount of quality, and left their fans glowing with pride at having nearly pulled off the impossible.

With Mikel Arteta rested after his concussion in the 2-1 win at Anfield and Yossi Benayoun missing with a virus, Arsenal fielded an attacking formation which included Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho in the starting line-up

Szczesny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Rosicky

Walcott – Oxlade-Chamberlain – Gervinho

van Persie

In the first leg at the San Siro three weeks ago, two goals in each half saw Arsenal on the receiving end of a 4-0 scoreline, their worst ever European defeat.

To dream the impossible dream

Koscielny's early goal gave Arsenal hope (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

As expected given the match situation and their on-field personnel, Arsenal started at a high tempo with Theo Walcott and Gervinho under clear instructions to push forward as much as they could in support of Robin van Persie, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain active in the space behind them. They were wide open in attack, but also potentially wide open to the threat of the counter-attack – a difficult conundrum in a match in which they needed to score four, but where the concession of a single goal would increase the ask to six.

It went without saying that Arsenal desperately needed an early score to keep their hopes alive, but with all the offensive firepower at their disposal the opening goal came from an unexpected source. In Arteta’s absence, Oxlade-Chamberlain whipped in a devilish corner from the left, and the ball was met at the near post by the head of Laurent Koscielny. Barely six minutes elapsed: 1-0. Game on.

Rosicky halved Arsenal's arrears with more than an hour remaining (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With a below-strength Milan looking surprisingly vulnerable at the back, Arsenal continued to create opportunities, with van Persie at the centre of almost everything. Walcott sprinted down the right and played the captain in with a lovely slide-rule pass, but his angled shot with his right foot was well saved by Christian Abbiati. The Dutchman and Tomas Rosicky should have done better with a two-on-two after a misplaced pass by Urby Emanuelson. Van Persie’s curling effort from 20 yards forced a diving save from Abbiati.

A second goal was coming and it came as little surprise when Walcott, who clearly had the measure of Champions League debutant Djamel Mesbah, provided the vital impetus. He ran hard at the full-back, and although his cross was weak, so too was Thiago Silva‘s clearance. It fell straight to Rosicky 15 yards out, who calmly slotted it past Abbiati at his near post. It was the Czech’s first Champions League goal since September 2006.

Arsenal weren’t finished yet, though. With Milan struggling to find any cohesion at all, Oxlade-Chamberlain burst forward and ended up as the meat in the sandwich as Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino converged on him. Referee Damir Skomina, who had been excessively whistle and card-happy throughout the half, pointed to the spot after a moment’s pause. Van Persie hammered the penalty to Abbiati’s left as the goalkeeper fully committed himself in the opposite direction.

A lethargic Milan had barely had a sniff of Wojciech Szczesny‘s goal throughout the half, but on the stroke of half-time Stephan El Shaarawy missed a great chance to reassert his team in the tie, but fired the wrong side of post with the goal at his mercy. As it was Arsenal, remarkably, went in at the interval 3-0 up, with the Emirates Stadium crowd still daring to dream the impossible dream.

Bowing out with spirit and honour

Arsenal started the second half in a tricky situation: stick or twist? One goal away from levelling the tie, but also one away from disaster. That uncertainty seemed to take the edge off their play early on, allowing Milan to establish a firm foothold in the game.

Van Persie came close to scoring a fourth goal, but Arsenal's momentum ultimately petered out (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Indeed the home side had to be grateful to Szczesny early on, who had to be alert as he sprinted off his line to dive at the feet of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had been anonymous to that point. But it was Arsenal who could – and should – have scored next. Mark van Bommel was dispossessed in midfield as Rosicky sent Gervinho charging in on goal. The Ivorian’s deflected shot was scrambled clear by Abbiati but fell to van Persie at close range, only for the keeper to reach up and parry the Dutchman’s attempted dink over him.

Play increasingly opened up as both sides sought the crucial next goal, but it was Milan who were now creating the better chances. Szczesny’s clearance went straight to Ibrahimovic, who shot wide with the keeper stranded. El Shaarawy ran half the length of the field, but his low drive lacked the power to really trouble Szczesny. The clearest opportunity of all fell to Nocerino, who appeared to have a simple tap-in at the back post but opted to flick the ball with the outside of his right boot rather than hammering it in with his left, allowing Szczesny to gather.

Arsenal reloaded for the closing stages, sending on Marouane Chamakh for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had been struggling for some time with a tight hamstring, and the lesser-sighted Park Ju-Young for Walcott, who hobbled off with what looked to be a dead leg. They were not found wanting for effort or desire in the final minutes, but in truth they created nothing meaningful in the final 25 minutes of the game as Milan successfully weathered the storm.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the match Arsene Wenger’s mood was one of pride tinged with regret:

We gave a good performance tonight and we are disappointed because we touched qualification. We had the chances and we didn’t do it, but we were very close. I felt that we suffered a bit in the second half physically because we gave a lot at Liverpool.

When we tired in midfield we had no options on the bench and the regret I have is there. The players put in a faultless performance, with fantastic spirit and you can only congratulate the whole team.

I don’t know if it is one of my proudest nights but it is a night when players can be proud to play for this club because they put every effort in. If you win 3-0 at home you can only say well done to the players.

In particular, he picked out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tomas Rosicky for praise:

For a guy who has never played at the top level in central midfield, he [Oxlade-Chamberlain] started in a Champions League game and he did well. When he got the ball, you always think something could happen. He can play all of the places across the pitch, in midfield to wide.

I have to give credit to Tomas Rosicky. He was again outstanding here. In all of these games, he was one of the most influential players, and he does not always get the credit he deserves.

There is little to add in terms of tactical analysis to a performance which showcased the very best of Arsenal, while also giving us a glimpse of some of the weaknesses every fan knows still exist. However, the vast majority of what we witnessed here was overwhelmingly positive.

From the very first whistle, Arsenal set about Milan. They pushed forward with real intent to pin the Italians back, but without over-committing. Walcott gave Mesbah a torrid night. Oxlade-Chamberlain was both industrious and intelligent. Rosicky never passed up the opportunity to dart upfield in a performance almost as impressive as his one against Tottenham. Song patrolled the midfield sensibly. All this gave van Persie the freedom to do what he does best, pulling defenders all over the field to create space for both himself and others. On another night – and with a touch more composure, particularly in the final quarter of the game, when it all became a bit too frantic and urgent – Arsenal would have scored the four goals they needed, and more. But for 45 minutes Arsenal were magnificent and would have been a handful for even a full-strength Milan.

The only real disappointment in the front six was Gervinho, who worked hard off the ball but offered little on it. He has yet to show any real sign of form since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations, and seemed to lack the zip in his movement which was evident early in the season.

Defensively, Arsenal did an excellent job containing both Robinho and Ibrahimovic, both of whom had been so destructive in the first leg. The Brazilian was quiet throughout, and Ibra only really came to life in the final half-hour as the home side started to tire. Full credit should go to the back four, who rarely looked troubled despite some pernickety decisions from the referee, who at times seemed intent on dishing out yellow cards all around for the slightest contact. And when the defence was breached, Szczesny showed the same fine form he displayed at Anfield at the weekend.

Where Arsenal did fall short, however, was in the lack of a game-changer to bring off the bench. Neither Chamakh nor Park inspired any sense of confidence that they might contribute a goal. How Wenger must have wished he still had the mercurial talents of the on-loan Andrey Arshavin to call on. On a night when Arsenal desperately needed a little bit of magic at the end, they could only send on artisans when they really needed artists.

However, none of that should detract from the fact that this was a lion-hearted performance which showed what this team is still capable of. The challenge for them is to do so with greater consistency.

Arsenal man of the match: The entire team. Some contributed more than others in terms of output, but to a man the team gave everything in terms of effort. If only they could play like this every week.

Advertisements

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

3 Responses to Arsenal go out with heads held high and all guns blazing

  1. jumpingpolarbear says:

    The Gunners had a good try tonight. They went out with honour.

  2. Sheree says:

    I really thought Arsenal were going to pull off a Lazarides-like response but they did their best and, as a fan, one can’t ask for any more. It made for gripping viewing.

  3. Pingback: Thomas the Verminator terminates Toon « The armchair sports fan

%d bloggers like this: