Arsene Wenger can dream of ‘a miracle’ after composed Arsenal earn timely break in the Europa League

james olley
Evening Standard
David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Arsene Wenger bemoaned having just four players to work with during the forthcoming international break but Arsenal would have felt a much lonelier place for the Gunners manager had his team not triumphed here.

Their season now rests on winning the Europa League to qualify for next year’s Champions League and Wenger’s future is inextricably linked to success or otherwise in that task.

The stakes could not have been much higher - even accounting for the comfort created by a two-goal lead from the first leg - and so both Wenger and his players deserve credit for dispatching a European powerhouse 5-1 on aggregate to finally win a last-16 European tie at the eighth time of asking.

There were scares, of course. Hakan Calhanoglu rifled Milan in front to set nerves jangling among home supporters before Danny Welbeck won a penalty four minutes later to wrestle back control of the tie.

Welbeck dived under minimal contact from Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez, of that there is no doubt, but it should not disguise the superior class Arsenal showcased across the 180 minutes.

Milan are not the team they once were - it almost felt sacrilegious to see a team with such a rich history of iconic defenders including Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Nesta and Cafu field on-loan striker Fabio Borini at right-back - but Arsenal were more clinical in the key moments and showed greater composure at both ends of the pitch to secure safe passage into the last eight.

Given they headed into this tie under the cloud of three successive defeats and cacophonous unrest among fans, that is no small feat.

“For the climate around the team it was a vital result for us,” Wenger told Standard Sport. “Apart from that, we have targets as well now to finish as close as possible to the top four and why not benefit from a miracle? And, to focus on the quarter-finals now.”

Wenger can speculate about a miracle because the more realistic option still exists. Due to Leicester’s involvement in Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea, Arsenal do not have a game until April 1 when Stoke are the visitors to north London.

Wenger could have been made to look a fool long before then. The intervening period would have been filled with further speculation over his position but instead it began with today’s Europa League quarter-final draw and the chance to plot a path into the Champions League via the back door.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Winning here maintains a tangible sense of purpose to these final few weeks of the season and the knock-on effect can be a greater sense of freedom in the Premier League.

Their next four League games - starting with Stoke before hosting Southampton, visiting Newcastle and returning home to face West Ham - look an inviting run and given nobody realistically expects a top-four League finish to still be within Arsenal’s grasp, they can rotate players, express themselves and hope to put a run together.

Before then, there is relative serenity, even if Wenger is a touch restless at the prospect.

“We now have all the players go away on international duty,” he said. “We have four players left. We mix work and recovery, but we have more coaches than players next week.”

The hiatus also gives Wenger a chance to recover injured players. It remains to be seen whether Laurent Koscielny joins up with the France squad for friendlies against Colombia and Russia after being forced off after 11 minutes with what sounded like a minor back complaint.

Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Welbeck added a late third after Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gifted Granit Xhaka Arsenal’s second and the England forward’s goals were particularly timely given Alexandre Lacazette will be one of the quartet working at London Colney, with a target of returning against Stoke.

The vaunted opposition undoubtedly had something to do with it but the gulf between ‘tickets sold’ and the actual number of fans through the turnstiles on the night was nowhere near as large as in recent weeks. There were still empty seats dotted around but supporters for the most part now seem invested in Arsenal’s Europa League campaign and as long as it continues, Wenger will benefit from the majority’s support.

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