Arsenal almost pulled off the impossible in the second-leg of their Champions’ League tie with AC Milan at the Emirates on Tuesday evening. 4-0 down after being outclassed at the San Siro three weeks ago, and with nobody giving Wenger’s men a hope, Arsenal stormed to a 3-0 first half lead. Unfortunately for the team from North London, they couldn’t add to that total in the second half, and were ultimately frustrated by the Italian giants, going out 4-3 on aggregate.
Arsenal began the game confidently; injuries to Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey meant that the Gunners started with an attacking line-up, which included the rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky, Gervinho, and the immensely dangerous Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. Milan started in a less than assured fashion; injuries to Prinze Boateng and Seedorf meant that El Shaarawy and Emanuelson started in midfield, and the absence of Antonini at left back, meant that Mesbah had to fill in, in a position he clearly was not comfortable with.
The visitors’ shakiness showed early on, and was exemplified by van Bommel’s early yellow card for a lunge on Rosicky. Van Bommel, amidst confusion with his team-mate Mexes, then failed to track Koscielney, the Arsenal centre back, from Oxlade Chamberlain’s corner, and the Frenchmen nodded in at the near post, to give Arsenal a seventh minute lead.
Milan, who have surrendered seemingly insurmountable leads in the Champions’ League before, notably against Liverpool in the 2005 final, and against Deportivo la Coruna in the 2004 quarter final, were aghast. If three weeks ago in the San Siro was a display of how good the Italians can be, then the first half at the Emirates, was surely a demonstration of how fearful, and ineffectual they can also appear.
The second goal came twenty minutes later, and again came from a simple defensive error. There appeared to be little danger until Tiago Silva’s awful attempted clearance landed directly at the feet of Rosicky just 25 yards out. The Czech’s first touch, and measured finish, past Abbiatti and into his bottom left corner, were sublime, and the Emirates was beginning to believe that a miracle was in the offing.
Visibly stunned, almost terrified, Milan had no pace, rhythm or certainty to their play, it was as if they had forgotten how to do even the simplest of things. Arsenal sensing their opponents’ obvious fragility, could smell blood, and got their just reward two minutes before half-time. Oxlade Chamberlain, who had an excellent opening 45 minutes, burst into the box, only to be stopped by a clumsy challenge from the stand-in left back Mesbah; a certain penalty. Robin van Persie stepped up, who else? Despite the best efforts of his Dutch compatriot, van Bommel, to hold things up and put him off, the lethal hitman continued his marvellous goal-scoring form, sending Abbiati the wrong way, and smashing the spot-kick home.
The Emirates exploded, however the Arsenal fans were almost silenced as the half-time whistle approached. For all their first period dominance, Arsenal found themselves sliced open at the back, and El Shaarawy was clean through with just Szczesny to beat. As the Pole rushed of his line, the youngster took a touch, steadied himself, but then clipped the finish well wide of the near post. A massive stroke of fortune for the Gunners, as one Milan away goal would have undone all of Arsenal’s previous good work, and meant that they would need to score six to win the tie.
Half-time came just at the right time for the Serie A team, and in the second half they regained some of their confidence and composure, perhaps remembering just who they are. That is not to say that Wenger’s men didn’t create chances, Abbiati produced a brilliant double save just before the hour to deny, first Gervinho, and then the follow up from van Persie, however the chances were fewer and further between, and were interspersed with opportunities for Milan.
The visitors’ best two chances fell to Nocerino, who limply hit his effort straight at Szcesny when only four yards from goal, and Ibrahimovic, who missed the target after a poor clearance from the Arsenal keeper had presented him with the ball just twenty yards out. The Swede should’ve done better, but he didn’t, and as the last ten minutes played out, Milan’s wily players kept the ball well and ran the clock down very effectively, much to the consternation of Arsene Wenger and his players.
No team had ever surrendered a four goal lead in the Champions’ League before Tuesday evening, and that is still very much the case, that fourth goal proving to be a bridge to far for the Gunners to cross. Milan march on, but their ability to go all the way has been brought into serious question. Arsenal bow out, but the courageous manner of their exit will only help their confidence grow, and with their sole focus now upon the domestic front, and Lukas Podolski reportedly poised to arrive at the Emirates in the Summer, the Gunners look in great shape to go further in next year’s competition.
Benfica vs Zenith St. Petersburg (in brief)
Benfica of Portugal reached the Champions’ League quarter finals for the first time in six years, after overcoming Russian side Zenith St. Petersburg in Lisbon on Tuesday evening. The Portuguese, who emerged from a group which included, English Champions, Manchester United, overturned a 2-3 first-leg defeat to take the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
The Russian side, with a slender first-leg advantage did their best to defend that lead and played very much on the counter attack. For much of the first-half their strategy paid off, however, with Benfica only needing one goal to progress, it was always going to be a high stakes gamble. Their bluff was called in first-half stoppage time when Maxi Perreira scored from Witsel’s pass, after the latter’s initial shot had been blocked by Malafaev in goal for Zenith.
In the second half Zenith, needing a goal, were forced to come out more. Benfica however, defended well as a team and restricted Zenith to only a handful of shots on goal. Then in second-half stoppage time, the Portuguese broke away; Bruno Cesar’s pass to Nelson Oliveira allowed the youngster to score on his Champions’ League debut, sending the Russians home, and Benfica into the last eight.