Champions League - Arsenal fall just short after thriller
Tue, 06 Mar 21:41:00 2012
Arsenal pulled out all the stops but could not overcome AC Milan after a 3-0 win at the Emirates led to a 4-3 aggregate defeat in their Champions League last-16 clash, leaving Gunners fans waiting another season for an elusive trophy.
But Milan, atrocious in the first 45 minutes, were far more competent in the second period while Arsenal - who lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott to injury - faded, Van Persie missing a sitter as the Rossoneri held on.
Arsenal will now turn their attentions to qualifying for next year’s edition via the Premier League, their quest for major silverware extending into an eighth year.
It is not often one can accuse a Milan side of lacking professionalism, but the Rossoneri appeared to think the tie had been won back in Italy as they effectively failed to turn up for the first half.
Maybe the fact that no-one had ever let a four-goal first-leg lead slip in the Champions League era was playing on their minds, but two of the worst capitulations so far - the 2005 final defeat to Liverpool and the loss of a 4-1 advantage to Deportivo - were both by Milan, who almost delighted North London and indeed the beleaguered Premier League with a defensive horror show.
Arsenal played with pace, passion, flair and a great deal of skill but their three first-half goals came courtesy of some shocking play from their illustrious guests.
The opener came nice and early for Arsene Wenger’s side as Koscielny was given the freedom of the penalty area to head home Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s seventh-minute corner, the marking non-existent but the finish crisp and low.
There were several chances before their second, Van Persie’s low finish blocked by Christian Abbiati while both he and Rosicky seemed desperate to avoid shooting when they insisted on exchanging passes after slicing open the Milan defence.
Van Persie had a trademark curler tipped behind by the busy Abbiati and, on 26 minutes, the hosts managed to double their lead when the Milan defence again fell to pieces: Djamel Mesbah, who had a rotten game at left-back, let Walcott ease away to put in a weak cross, which Thiago Silva cleared straight to Rosicky, who slid home a low finish.
Arsenal, who were now at their dominant best, got a penalty just before half-time. Again it came courtesy of some shocking defending as Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino initially absolved the responsibility of challenging Oxlade-Chamberlain before simultaneously fouling him, with the referee - who somehow managed to be both fussy and lenient all night - taking an age before signalling the spot-kick.
Van Persie was made to re-set the ball but made no mistake with his foot, hammering a vicious finish into the right-side of goal. There was still time for young Milan forward Stephan El Shaarawy to put wide when one-on-one with Wojciech Szczesny, but the impetus was well and truly Arsenal’s going into the dressing room.
Arsenal’s comeback had left the stadium - and much of the football world - gasping for more but, alas, the second-half was an anti-climax.
Both sides were missing key midfielders but Arsenal paid a higher price as Oxlade-Chamberlain - their main attacking threat - almost immediately picked up a hamstring injury, hanging on for half an hour but clearly struggling to keep pace with the game.
Milan, meanwhile, had obviously been given a dose of the hairdryer from coach Massimiliano Allegri and were a far better proposition, Szczesny forced into a superb rush-and-block after Robinho sent the largely quiet Zlatan Ibrahimovic clean through.
Then came the most uncharacteristic of misses from Van Persie. Unstoppable for the past year, the free-scoring Dutchman found himself with just a prone Abbiati to beat after the Milan keeper had kept out Gervinho’s deflected shot: somehow the talismanic Gunners forward managed to fire straight at the Italian shot-stopper, who to his credit did well to readjust following the initial save.
It may well have been a turning point but in truth Milan spurned a pair of easier chances afterwards. Following a woeful kick from Szczesny, Ibrahimovic had the goal at his mercy but put wide with the Pole stranded. Then came one of the misses of the tournament when, from point-blank range, an unmarked Nocerino somehow put straight at Szczesny with most of the goal gaping.
There were still 13 minutes remaining but both sides looked exhausted, particularly the hosts, who also lost Walcott to a thigh knock and were toiling to get the ball forward.
It was a damp squib of an ending to an otherwise thrilling encounter, with the relief on Milan’s faces as tangible as the woe on Arsenal’s.
Milan now enter the quarter-final draw for the first time since they last won the trophy in 2007, while Arsenal must focus on resisting Chelsea’s assault on fourth place to ensure participation in Europe’s premier club competition next time out.
Reda Maher @Reda_Eurosport / Eurosport