And so Arsenal’s European campaign came to an end under the lights of north London. We knew that it surely would, but for 45 thrilling minutes last night, the Arsenal hinted at the impossible becoming a mere formality. It wasn’t to be though. Needing to land not one, not two, not three, but four knockout blows just to get to extra time, we punched ourselves out sometime around the hour mark of the match. Thereafter, Milan resorted to, stretching the boxing metaphor a bit, holding on for dear life. This took the form, mostly, of hitting the ball to Ibrahimovic who would then fall over and win a free kick from a largely compliant referee. As frustrating as the second half became, the players shouldn’t linger on what might have been because their efforts last night were beyond reproach. The damage had already been done in Milan.
With injuries now biting in central midfield, Arsene parachuted the Ox in to play with the rejuvenated Tomas Rosicky and Alex Song. And, for anyone wanting to take a positive out of our European elimination, then the 18 year old’s performance against the Italian champions must count as the biggest one on the night. It was from his corner, a vicious delivery, that Laurent Koscielny headed the goal that suggested that Milan were not going to be able to coast through the 90 minutes. It was the Ox’s driving run, trusting in his technique to beat defenders (take note, Mr Walcott) that forced the referee to give the penalty which Robin dispatched, unsaveable, into the corner just before half time. And, ultimately, I think you have to say it was his injury that changed the tempo of the tie. The surging runs from midfield all but disappeared and Milan were much happier containing us. It’s unbelievable to think this player is just 18. I can’t wait to see him and Jack linking up, it’s going to droolworthy.
In between the Ox’s direct contribution to Arsenal’s goals, we saw another goal- two in successive home games now- for Tomas Rosicky. Rosicky it was who looked most devastated at the end of the match last night, and well he might have done. He was everywhere yesterday and his calm, sidefoot, finish belied a player who hadn’t scored in a year up until last weekend. The resurrection of Rosicky this season has been one of the more pleasant side effects of the departures of both Fabregas and the money grabber. I am a confirmed Aaron Ramsey fan, but on Rosicky’s current form, it’s difficult to see how Ramsey gets back into that midfield, especially if you consider that the Ox has just made a massive claim on a central midfield spot and we still have Arteta, Wilshere and Diaby to return.
Whatever about Diaby, it’s not his fault he keeps getting injured.
In a blistering first half, we could, and maybe should, have scored more. Rosicky passing too early to van Persie, when a later and, it has to be said, better pass would have put the skipper one on one with Abbiati. Van Persie was denied low down on his right foot and then, attempting a repeat of his Tottenham strike, by a great Abbiati save. At the other end, a threat of a Milan goal leaving us needing six loomed large but, in that second half, it never really looked likely. Not until the very end of the first half when they missed a great chance. The kind of chance that leaves you thinking that maybe, just maybe, it’s going to be your night.
As it was, a shell shocked Milan regrouped at half time and, I don’t think, Arsenal were anywhere near the force we had been in the first half. This is where we missed the likes of Wilshere and Arteta, someone to get a foot on the ball and keep it. Aside from Gervinho’s shot and Abbiati’s save at point blank range from van Persie’s follow up, I’m struggling to think of a clear cut chance created. And I don’t see how anyone could blame Robin for that miss, he tried something, the keeper read it. End of. It could have happened with the penalty. Besides which, at the other end, Milan missed an even better chance when Gervinho went to sleep, allowing Milan to play the ball across our goal to a waiting Milan fella. Improbably, with the goal at his mercy, he hit the ball straight at Szczesny.
Funnily enough, even as Milan’s control of the match grew, I could never see Szczesny being beaten last night. Obviously not a thought you like to vocalise, but he seemed so calm and assured and, also, lucky. The one bum note he played was a pass into Song that allowed Ibrahimovic to rob him and fire off an instant shot in the direction of Arsenal’s mostly unguarded goal. Luckily for the big Pole, the ball just went wide. That error though, I think was a little symptomatic of a team who knew that they were so close to acheiving the improbable, but were just a little too tired to get there. Likewise, the last gasp break out that Alex Song led, only to needlessly give the ball away by trying to play a long pass when a shorter one to any of the eminently reachable red shirts in front of him would have done.
As I said at the top, though, I’m not here to reproach the Arsenal on last night’s performance. Again, they showed what is possible when they turn up and everyone is firing. But they also have the first leg performance to remind them what is also possible when nobody turns up. As we move into the last two months of the season, the players have to make sure that we get less of the latter and more of the former. If we can play like that for what’s left of this season, there’s no way we won’t finish third.
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