Just when you thought Arsene Wenger was gone, that Arsenal had reached the point of no return, a remarkable victory in Milan has opened up the possibility — just the possibility — that perhaps, after all, it isn’t over.
Goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, his first for Arsenal, and from Aaron Ramsey gave Wenger’s side a 2-0 victory over AC Milan in the last 16 of the Europa League and gave the north London club a glimmer of light in what has been a very dark season — and a chance of a place in the quarter-finals.
Given Arsenal’s miserable form, it seemed almost preposterous to suggest that victory in Italy could be enough to help Wenger avoid what most onlookers seem to believe is the inevitable end of an era.
With this club, however, and with Wenger’s iron grip on it, nothing can be ruled out.
The Frenchman has point blank refused to consider breaking his current contract, which has another year to run, and has publicly and privately insisted he still believes he is the man to rescue the north London club from its current malaise.
So, any stories about Joachim Low, Thierry Henry, or Carlo Ancelotti taking over in June were briefly put on hold as the football world sat back to analyse how Wenger’s team would react to what has been a depressing fortnight for Arsenal fans — ready to pounce again at the slightest sign of weakness.
In the end there was no pouncing, however, and Wenger was able to hold his head high for the first time in many weeks, even if this was just the first leg.
“It is an important win of course after we had a nightmare week,” he said. “Overall it is important to win, but it is not qualification. We have to finish the job at home. I am happy with the spirit and response we gave.
The task for Wenger going into this match was a daunting one because, having lost at home to tiny Ostersunds and at newly-promoted Brighton, a match in the San Siro was always going to provide a difficult test for a team even he admits is desperately short of confidence.
Arsenal arrived in Italy with full knowledge of what they were up against, especially as Milan have been revitalised under new manager Gennaro Gattuso.
The problem for the Gunners in Europe is not dissimilar to Tottenham, who found the streetwise experience of Juventus too much to deal with at Wembley 24 hours earlier; they have far more games under their belt than Spurs, of course, but have not gone beyond the last 16 of any European competition since 2009-10 — and that creates the kind of nagging doubt which even a more confident team may find difficult to deal with.
So while Arsenal supporters took some comfort in Tottenham’s demise at Wembley there was always a fear that their team, already 13 points behind their deadly rivals in the Premier League, could follow their lead in Europe.
Wenger’s pre-match press conference focused on the need to defend properly but in fact it was his team’s attacking verve which game them the advantage in front of 2,000 delighted away supporters.
In a remarkable first half, Wenger’s side showed the kind of character and drive which has been marked absent in recent weeks.
They could have gone behind early on when Arsenal keeper David Ospina came racing out of his goal to stop Hakan Calhanoglu and could so easily have given away a penalty. But the rest of the half was Arsenal’s.
They took the lead when Mesut Ozil’s pass beat the Milan defence to send Mkhitaryan free, and the winger cut inside onto his right foot to score — via a deflection — his first goal since a January move from Manchester United.
It was a vital one for his confidence and for that of his team-mates and Arsenal visibly grew in belief as Callum Chambers hit a 20-metre shot which was well saved and Danny Welbeck wasted an excellent chance, allowing keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma to keep out his effort.
The Gunners even hit the woodwork when Mkhataryan tried his luck again and went agonisingly close. But the second came, eventually, deep into first-half injury time when Ozil produced another wonderful through-ball for Ramsey to round Donnarumma and tap into an unguarded net.
It was inevitable that Milan would come back into it, and Giacomo Bonaventura had three good chances, including his team’s first shot on target, early in the second half.
But Welbeck also came close to extending Arsenal’s lead and his team defended expertly and resolutely to see out a morale boosting victory.
Could the Europa League do for Wenger what the FA Cup has done before?
Borussia Dortmund face an uphill struggle to reach the last eight of the Europa League after a 2-1 first leg defeat at home to RB Salzburg.
In contrast, Atletico Madrid have one foot in the quarter-finals after a 3-0 win at home to Lokomotiv Moscow.
Donnarumma, Bonucci, Rodriguez, Romagnoli, Calabria (Borini 79), Biglia, Bonaventura, Calhanoglu (Kalinic 62), Kessie, Suso, Cutrone (Valente Silva 69).
Subs not used:
Zapata, Montolivo, Locatelli, Donnarumma.
Ospina, Chambers (El Neny 85), Koscielny, Mustafi, Kolasinac (Maitland-Niles 62), Xhaka, Ramsey, Wilshere, Mkhitaryan, Ozil (Holding 80), Welbeck.
Subs not used:
Iwobi, Cech, Nelson, Nketiah.
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