Despite the defiant words of Wojciech Szczesny, spoken more in hope than realism, that Arsenal can turn around a four-goal deficit at the Emirates Stadium in a fortnight’s time, the rest of the world knows that AC Milan sent Arsene Wenger’s side crashing out of the competition in humiliating fashion.
The Arsenal manager knows too. He admitted: “Statistically it is too big a deficit.
“We’ll try of course but there is very little hope. They have a massive advantage and it is very difficult to overturn. We will give it our best and it cannot be worse [at the Emirates] than tonight.”
If this is to be Wenger’s last away day in Europe’s premier competition for a number of years, given the club’s league position, then it was a pitiful way to go out.
Their defending was abysmal; attack non-existent.
True, Milan — and particularly their front three of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng — were imperious. But this was not a true Arsenal performance; rather it was footballing suicide. The back four were offered scant protection and when they were put under scrutiny they were found sorely lacking.
It was a sad way to say a final goodbye to Thierry Henry, who replaced the woeful Theo Walcott at half-time. But that hardly matters in the long run. How can Robin van Persie be convinced to stay after this? His supporting cast was found wanting as two goals from Robinho and an Ibrahimovic penalty followed a wonder strike by Boateng, the former Tottenham man who opened the scoring in the 15th minute.
Szczesny’s poor clearance arrived at the feet of Antonio Nocerino, who played the ball over the top to Boateng. The midfielder chested it down before lashing a volley high over Szczesny’s head and in off the bar. It was a sensational strike.
Arsenal were rocking, Milan rampant.
Arsenal could barely string two passes together as the game simply bypassed the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta. This was humiliation on a grand scale, no visiting player able to take the game to AC Milan.
A second goal was inevitable, and it arrived seven minutes before the break. Walcott — completely anonymous throughout — gave the ball away and Ibrahimovic sprinted to the byline before cutting the ball back for Robinho, whose header found the far corner.
Arsenal prayed for the half-time whistle, but the Italian champions kept coming. Laurent Koscielny had to go off injured, and Luca Antonini then prodded wide from Ibrahimovic’s pass.
This was as poor a half of football as Arsenal have produced in Europe for many years. Despite the introduction of Henry, nothing changed — it simply got worse. Moments after the restart, Ibrahimovic set up Robinho, who made the most of a Thomas Vermaelen slip to lash home from the edge of the area.
The hosts turned to party tricks before the hour mark, so complete was the humiliation.
Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati was finally forced into meaningful action as he brilliantly turned away van Persie’s volley, but that it was the only chance Arsenal had created told its own sorry story.
It got worse with 12 minutes to go, Ibrahimovic getting the goal he richly deserved from the penalty spot after a clumsy foul by Johan Djourou.
As Szczesny said: “They have some of the best attacking players in the world. Playing against Ibrahimovic tonight, I think he is up there as the best striker I have ever played against.
“We didn’t have the best of games but you have to give credit to Milan — they punished on every occasion, they scored some quality goals and deserved to win.”
In the end, the final whistle was a blessed relief, and it was hard not to feel for the travelling supporters. They had been involved in a confrontation with heavy-handed Italian police outside the Duomo; one was arrested, another taken to hospital.
They deserved far, far better than this, with Wenger conceding: “Defensively we were poor and offensively we were never in the game. It was a big shock.
“We have to take our pain, regroup and prepare for the next game.”
Szczesny was bolder: “Now we have to keep fighting, pick ourselves up, get the confidence back, challenge in all the other competitions we are in, and do our best in the second leg. It’s not impossible — we still believe we can turn it around at the Emirates.”