Early Doors

Milan tie could prove pivotal for Arsenal

Early Doors

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RvP feeling the pressure

Four years is a long time.

Back in 2008 Portsmouth were FA Cup holders, Arab Spring sounded like a rejected name for a new brand of mineral water and we had yet to have such delights as Desperate Scousewives, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or My Man Boobs and Me inflicted upon us.

Around this time four years ago, Arsenal faced AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League. The Gunners prevailed courtesy of a famous 2-0 win at the San Siro in the second leg. At the time, they were top of the Premier League table.

Milan, meanwhile, may have been defending champions but they were struggling to recapture that form and would finish the season fifth in Serie A. That meant a place in the UEFA Cup the following campaign, where they had to rely on two late goals to salvage a 2-2 draw at the aforementioned Pompey.

How things have changed. This evening, as the two clubs prepare to meet again at the same stage of the same competition, the worm has well and truly turned.

Nowadays it is Arsenal who are struggling to keep pace with the leading pack in their own league, while Milan are two points clear at the top of Serie A as they look to retain their domestic title.

The Gunners are currently in fourth place on the home front, above Chelsea on goals scored only and Newcastle by just a point. Even by their recent, readjusted standards, that is cause for alarm.

In truth, a tie against Milan is harsh reward for Arsenal topping their group. Milan were among the second seeds in the second-round draw after sharing Group H with victors Barcelona . Not content with eliminating the Gunners in the past two seasons and swiping their best player last summer, Barca have again harmed Arsenal's prospects by proxy this season.

Under Arsene Wenger's management the club could always be counted on to reach the knockout phase of the Champions League, never mind fail to qualify for the tournament at all. This is the 12th successive season in which the Gunners have made it through the group stage.

However, that is no longer a certainty, and Wenger acknowledges that the recent 7-1 shoeing of Blackburn and 2-1 win at Sunderland are no reason to get cocky given the run of three straight defeats with which they began the second half of what has been a topsy-turvy season.

"You could say that the crisis at the moment in England is a bit like fire," he said, somewhat philosophically. "It moves very quickly from one club to another (i.e. different clubs are in 'crisis' at different times).

"It's a fire with strong wind so you have to be a bit cautious because it can quickly come back. The wind can blow it quickly back.

"This is the important time for us. Before the week started, I said that this week would be vital for us. It's down to us to do well and hopefully we will do it."

It certainly is an important week. After travelling back from northern Italy, Arsenal will begin their preparations for Saturday's trip to Sunderland in the FA Cup, the trophy they have the greatest chance of winning this season.

If a tight race for fourth place in the Premier League does not go their way then they will have to win the Champions League just to claim the right to play in it next season.

Chief executive Ivan Gazidis has said in the past that Arsenal are one of the clubs best equipped to survive a year without Champions League football. That may be so, but his assertion will stand up to heavy scrutiny should it be borne out in reality.

The number of empty seats at the Emirates Stadium on matchdays is becoming more conspicuous as the season progresses. PA announcements during home games proclaiming them to be sell-outs are now greeted with scoffs and guffaws rather than a proud cheer from many of the Arsenal faithful.

Failure to reach next season's Champions League - either by lifting the trophy or via their league position - coupled with another anticipated rise in ticket prices could see a drop in season ticket renewals.

While Arsenal have been able to soldier on during this seven-year trophyless spell, should they sustain a hit to the bottom line that they so cherish and hold up as vindication for their underachievement on the pitch then they will be left with very little to give them solace.

- - -

When Arsenal claimed that victory in Milan's back yard four years ago, they were a very different outfit. Cesc Fabregas, entering his pomp as an Arsenal player, scored the opening goal with just six minutes remaining. Emmanuel Adebayor was at the peak of his powers, and his 90th-minute clincher was one of 30 goals he scored for the club that season.

Of a starting XI which included Emmanuel Eboue, Aleksandr Hleb and Philippe Senderos, only Manuel Almunia, Bacary Sagna and Abou Diaby remain at the club. Robin van Persie was an unused substitute that night.

Milan, meanwhile, still retain the services of Gennaro Gattuso, Pippo Inzaghi, Alexandre Pato, Massimo Ambrosini and Alessandro Nesta to this day. Paolo Maldini would probably still get a game if he had not retired in 2009.

Given that list of names still on the Rossoneri's books, it is perhaps no surprise that the average age of their squad is five years older than that of Arsenal's.

If nothing else, this tie should be an intriguing match-up between age and relative exuberance.

- - -

QUOTE OF THE DAY: "As Rangers FC is subject to an Insolvency Event, a 10-point deduction has been applied to its total points in the League Championship for the current Season. In addition, Rangers FC is subject to restrictions on the registration of Players with the SPL whilst in administration. We are seeking an early meeting with the Administrators." - The grim statement on the SPL's official website confirming that Rangers have gone into administration. Due to the amount of traffic going to the website, every link to it is directed straight to the statement.

FOREIGN VIEW: The Europa League provided a rare thrill on Tuesday when the knockout kicked off with a match at 11:00. Due to the freezing temperatures of the Russian winter, the second-round tie between Rubin Kazan and Olympiacos had to be played 500 miles away from Rubin's Central Stadium at the Luzhniki in Moscow. Even then, with the game kicking off at 13:00 local time, it was minus 13 degrees at pitch level.

After David Fuster had put the visitors up 1-0, Olympiacos' keeper was sent off as he conceded a penalty. The substitute keeper came off the bench to make his debut for the Greek side, and became an instant hero by saving the penalty with his very first touch for the club, who went on to win the first leg 1-0.

That goalkeeper's name? Roy Carroll.

COMING UP: There are two more Champions League last-16 first legs to get your teeth into this evening. You can follow live coverage of Zenit St. Petersburg v Benfica (17:00) and Milan v Arsenal (19:45) later today, plus Parma v Juventus (17:30) in Serie A.

Meanwhile there is also an in-depth look at Luis Suarez's performance against Manchester United, Jim White's latest blog and our 60-second interview with Roy Keane.

Elsewhere in the wide world of sports, there is also live coverage of England's second one-day international against Pakistan from 11:00 and Welsh Open snooker at 13:00.

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