Arsenal may be out of the Champions League but their proud, defiant, and sparkling performance in a 3-0 victory over AC Milan continues the recent momentum that will make them favourites to return to the competition next season; even if the frustration of an early exit will sting for a while.
In the end, the fairytale was tantalisingly close but ultimately unachievable as Arsene Wenger’s men, already 4-0 down from the first leg following a miserable performance at the San Siro, went 3-0 up by half-time but ran out of legs in the second half as Milan suddenly remembered they were Italian and born to defend.
No team had ever come from 4-0 down to win a tie in the Champions League and only three teams had done so in the history of European football; but even so it was tough to take for home fans, whose expectations had been raised by goals from Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky and a Robin van Persie penalty.
Coming on the back of a 2-1 victory at Liverpool and a 5-2 win against Tottenham, however, the consolation was that players and fans seem at one again at the Emirates as Wenger’s team were cheered loudly off the pitch; a real contrast to the booing and anger a few weeks ago, with supporters questioning their manager and the team’s destiny.
“It was only one goal in the end but we want to come back next year now,” said Koscielny. “Everybody fought together, everybody helped his teammates and now it’s very important to keep that. We want to be fourth or maybe third in the league.”
Already suffering injury problems there was further bad news for the Gunners when both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott limped off in a frustrating second half; but most supporters will go home remembering the drama of the opening 45 minutes and the spirit their heroes showed.
Before the game, Wenger put the chance of going through at 5%, although in reality it was probably even less — although Arsenal no doubt also remembered Liverpool’s stunning comeback in the 2005 final, when they were 3-0 down at half-time against the Italians but eventually won the trophy on penalties in Istanbul. A precedent of sorts to cling on to.
The Emirates, already buoyed by those victories over Spurs and Liverpool since that fateful day in Milan, was certainly up for it and was further encouraged by two goals in the opening 27 minutes.
The first came after just seven minutes — Koscielny losing his marker from an Oxlade-Chamberlain corner to head past Christian Abbiati. Then Rosicky, a perennial under-performer over the last year, doubled the lead when Thiago Silva failed to clear a Theo Walcott cross and was swiftly punished.
Wenger, hindered by injuries to Mikel Arteta, Abou Diaby and Yossi Benayoun, went for an attacking formation with Oxlade-Chamberlain playing in central midfield, and he was rewarded with a rip-roaring display against a Milan side that look petrified by the pace of Walcott and the energy surging through the Arsenal team.
There was sheer delirium in the stadium when the third goal arrived just two minutes before half-time — thanks to a penalty won by Oxlade-Chamberlain when he was sandwiched by Nocerino and Mesbah as he raced into the area.
There was never any real doubt that van Persie would score; lashing his left-foot shot high into the net to leave Arsenal 3-0 ahead at the break and Milan wobbling, just as they had done in Istanbul.
Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny was kept far busier in the second half, as Milan increased their attacking momentum and saw both Shaarawy and Ibrahimovic denied by smart saves. Arsenal must have thought they were destined to go through when Szczesny then saved with his feet on the line when Nocerino looked certain to finish a sweeping move from just five yards in the 78th minute; but with tired legs and nothing on the bench they simply didn’t have the energy or the legs to do it.
The moment that truly sealed their fate came after 59 minutes when Gervinho broke into the Milan area; his shot was saved and then van Persie, the top scorer in the Premier League and the most in-form striker in world football somehow missed. The Dutchman tried to chip over Abbiati but the Milan keeper stuck up a hand and denied him from close range.
It was a heartbreaking moment for Arsenal but on reflection they may eventually see this positive performance as one that pushed them towards success in the Premier League rather than one that cost them in Europe.
Subs for Arsenal: Chamakh for Oxlade-Chamberlain, 75, Park for Walcott, 84.
Subs for Milan: Bonera for Mesbah, 89, Aquilani for Shaarawy, 70.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved