Early Doors

Pride restored, but the wait goes on

Early Doors

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Robin van Persie reflects on his miss at the final whistle

Pride. Valiance. Heroism - there are few more backhanded compliments in sport.

Those and many more such attributes were lavished upon Arsenal following their 3-0 win over AC Milan last night.

The Gunners made a concerted and thrilling stab at overturning the four-goal deficit from an abject first leg in their Champions League last-16 tie three weeks ago at the San Siro. Having chipped three quarters of that handicap away by half-time, many dared to dream that an unprecedented comeback in the competition was possible.

Milan's fans must have been in a unique bind last night as they looked on in anguish. The tifosi of the Rossoneri support one of the grandest clubs in the history of the game, which is currently defending an 18th Serie A crown and still in with a shout of claiming an eighth European Cup. And yet, they could be forgiven for wondering 'why always us?' as their team veered dangerously close to yet another spectacular European capitulation.

The memories of Istanbul in 2005 and Corunna in 2004 must have been flooding back as they watched their team roll over in the first half.

Ultimately, however, it was a bridge too far for Arsenal, a club now left to ruminate on another season without bringing a first major trophy back to the Emirates Stadium.

In the wake of a breathless opening 45 minutes, a more evenly-matched second period and a tense but subdued finale, the heady mix of emotions in north London should not obscure the fact that Arsenal have again exited the Champions League before the latter stages.

It was a performance which helped restore a great deal of pride at the club in the short term, following that insipid first-leg showing, but a glorious failure is still a failure.

Much has been made of Robin van Persie's missed opportunity near the hour mark, when he tried to dink the ball over Christian Abbiati from close range only for the goalkeeper's reactions allowing him to make the save. It felt reminiscent of a tame effort from Thierry Henry during the 2006 final that would have put the Gunners 2-0 up; the club captain, star forward and unquestionably best player for once failing to meet his own absurdly high standards.

The Daily Mirror, for example, went with a shot of the save on its back page, accompanied by the headline: "VAN DAMN! Gunners heroes came THIS close to miracle at the Emirates."

The fact that the Dutch striker - whose first-half penalty was his 32nd Arsenal goal of the season - would only have levelled the tie had he scored has been conveniently brushed over in the search for a defining image of the game.

If we are running a tally of ifs and buts, then Antonio Nocerino's woeful effort in the final 15 minutes cancels out Van Persie's earlier error.

Arsene Wenger looked as flustered and emotional after the game as at any time during his 16 years in England, but his post-match words were as measured as ever and they rang true.

"I don't know if it's one of my proudest nights but it's a night when the players can feel proud to play for this club because they put absolutely every effort in and if you win 3-0 at home you can only say well done," he said.

"But if you play 180 minutes and are missing for 90, well it's difficult at that level. But we were very close."

Criticism of Wenger, and even calls for him to leave the club from some quarters, are sporadic but vociferous when they come. If it is ever possible for a manager to repair a little of his damaged reputation in defeat, then that is what has happened to Wenger now.

Of course, the inability to carry over the breathless momentum of the first half into the second was in part down to his lack of options on the bench, a situation for which he is entirely responsible. As Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Yong came on, neither striker had the air of one who was going to become a hero and force extra time.

But there are positives to take from the victory, if not the outcome at the end of it. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's rapid progress continued, with Wenger's enforced gamble of deploying the teenager in a more central role reaping rewards. It was from his corner that Laurent Koscielny scored the opener after seven minutes, and his surging run drew the foul which led to Van Persie's spot-kick.

Wenger has copped plenty of flak from Arsenal fans for his policy of not playing the teenager every week and for substituting him whenever he does. That the young attacker was clearly fatigued and labouring with a knock for much of the second half may inadvertently convince some of the club's supporters that Wenger is correct in managing his development so cautiously.

Shorn of last night's context, a glance at Arsenal's results since the international duty shows wins over Tottenham, Liverpool and Milan on the spin, with 10 goals scored and three conceded in that time.

Qualification for next season's competition is now the Gunners' only target. Their two biggest rivals for the much-coveted fourth place - Chelsea and Newcastle - both have to come to the Emirates before the end of the season, with the Magpies first up next Monday.

A visit from league leaders Manchester City aside, Arsenal's run-in should put them in pole position for the play-off place and also has them well-placed to usurp third-placed Tottenham.

Against Milan, Arsenal may not have been able to produce a comeback for the history books, but their performance should greatly aid their immediate future.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY: "It would be difficult. I wouldn't be able to come back to north London. So no, I will pass on that one." - Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp rules himself out of the running for the Chelsea job. Such concerns did not stop him when he left Portsmouth for bitter rivals Southampton, then went back again.

FOREIGN VIEW: "We must find political solutions, as we alone cannot get rid of the violence. We feel a bit left alone, and it is a social problem." - German federation president Reinhard Rauball reacts after reports of a Borussia Moenchengladbach fan bus was attacked by hooligans from rival club Cologne. Masked thugs launched an attack with sticks and paving stones as the bus, containing women, children and elderly men, was parked in a motorway lay-by. No-one was injured, according to police, who quickly became aware of the incident and stopped the offending minibus, making nine arrests for criminal damage, harassment and breach of the peace.

COMING UP: There's no letting up in terms of live action this evening. In the Champions League it's Barcelona v Bayer Leverkusen and APOEL Nicosia v Lyon at 19:45, while there is also full coverage of Tottenham Hotspur v Stevenage in the FA Cup (19:30), two more Championship games (19:45) and Bologna v Juventus in Serie A at 17:30.

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