On A Knife Edge
Its games like this that make you realise how fortunate you are to support a club like Arsenal. Going into the match I wasn`t so much filled with nerves or apprehension, as excitement. When we drew Real Madrid two seasons ago, I recall being thankful for the opportunity to see Zinedine Zidane in the flesh in the final year of his career (I was just as pleased to see him totally ineffective in both legs). This year I feel similarly about Maldini, an absolute giant of the modern game. The contrast in the two sides had been well discussed in the build up; Europe`s up and coming pretenders against the established old guard. Would the young upstarts be able to break into the palace and usurp the established order? Victory "running in blood down palace walls" as William Blake once put it.
The opening thirty minutes may not have offered the blood and thunder of a Premiership match, but, without wishing to sound overly pretentious, there was plenty on offer for admirers of the technical game. The two sides were "feeling each other out" to borrow and old boxing expression. Milan, as one would expect, were compact and tight, relying largely on the Brazilian duo of Kaka and Pato to use their twinkling toes on the counter attack. Flamini continued his superb form by expertly marshalling Kaka. This left Pato very isolated, and Gallas and Senderos coped with him pretty comfortably all night. I spoke in my article yesterday about some of the difficult decisions facing Wenger in the coming weeks. One of those decisions was made for him on seven minutes when Pirlo`s shot hit Toure and the Ivorian had to go off with a pulled calf muscle. One could sense it was in the water after his incredibly jaded display on Saturday and I was not at all surprised to see him withdrawn so early. Wenger`s candid post-match assessment that Kolo had simply played too much football confirming this.
The Rossoneri, playing in their supposedly lucky white kit (five of their seven successful European Cup Final wins were in white), forced the first chance of the game. Seedorf`s corner was swung into the Arsenal six yard area, but Lehmann tipped Maldini`s header away from danger. It would take Arsenal 38 minutes to create their first clear breakthrough, with Milan`s defence predictably resolutely drilled. Bacary Sagna fed Eboue on the right hand side, he skipped brilliantly inside Kaladze and pulled back for Flamini, only for the Flanimal to fire a low shot straight at the keeper. At this point I have to say I concur with Ozi; Eboue obviously had a severe telling off from the manager, because he was superb. Probably our most potent attacking threat running at Kaladze. We saw the Eboue we all wanted to see, the Eboue who runs at defenders, who can arc in a pinpoint cross, who can beat three players with two touches. He would become the focal point of most of our best moves. The Gunners looked galvanised by the opportunity and threatened to carve Milan open again. Hleb broke away and fed Adebayor, with Cesc running free in the centre, Adebayor`s reverse pass was overcooked and the chance evaporated. Hleb and Adebayor began to come into the game, having previously been camouflaged by Milan`s excellent stifling instincts.
The second half was less touchy feely and more of a getting to grips. Arsenal came over peculiarly British- a case of owners beginning to mimic their dogs- as they upped the tempo, realising that Milan`s ageing limbs were our best focal point. Arsenal`s superior fitness levels have carried them over the finishing line in the high octane habitat of the Premiership, with a Serie A side considerably longer in the tooth; the Gunners looked to hit them where it hurts. Arsenal`s hand was strengthened when Alessandro Nesta was taken off injured, meaning Jankulovski came on at left back. Here the Gunners would find a chink in Milan`s immaculate defensive armour and Eboue began to have his way. Arsenal`s catalyst was a Sagna inspired break away down the right, he found Hleb in space, who danced past the hapless Jankulovski and pulled back for Eboue, who dragged his shot wide. The home side could taste blood, Fabregas` presence grew, he slipped a ball into the lurking Eduardo who fired his shot over the bar. Arsenal continued their sustained territorial dominance, but a wily Milan side rode the storm. The Gunners ascendancy was curtailed by Milan as Pato turned inside Clichy and sent over a low cross, which caused a goalmouth melee, but Senderos cleared in the nick of time.
Wenger brought Bendtner on with Milan looking out on their feet, holding on for the final whistle as the lactic acid imbued their limbs, Bendtner gave Arsenal a greater presence upfront. Arsenal might have had a penalty when Jankulovski brushed Eboue's leg in the area, but the Ivorian`s theatrics ensured he received a yellow card to spoil what was a great performance from him. Milan briefly threatened again when Gilardino turned a header goalwards from Kaka`s corner, but Lehmann was expertly positioned. A Fabregas pull back fell invitingly for Bendtner who pummelled his shot over. As the fourth official held up the board for four minutes injury time, the sense that Arsenal could score was palpable in the stadium. On 93 minutes, Theo Walcott turned Jankulovski inside out and sent over a teasing cross which completely eliminated Kalac in the Milan goal, but Adebayor`s header rattled the crossbar.
It was a frustrating end to an absorbing match; I think a 1-0 first leg lead would not have flattered us. But Milan`s gameplan was clearly executed as they felt a 0-0 draw was good value. I feel this is an ever so marginally better result for us than it is them as they did not get a much coveted away goal. This effectively makes the second leg a one off match; however, we are in a position where we do not necessarily have to win it. A 1-1 draw sees us through, Milan need to win outright. They may be confident of doing this on their own turf, but I feel we have seen where we can hurt them. In the last twenty five minutes of the match our superior energy told. If we can keep the second leg level until the seventy minute mark, we can feel very confident of going through. Alternatively, an early goal will see Milan need to open up and there are few teams in Europe better suited to the counter attacking game than us. The margins are very, very tight and it sounds obvious, but I think this may be a case of first goal wins. A few outside of our camp seem to be lukewarm about our chances, but this tie is very, very close. Our youngsters have shown they can live with Europe`s finest, but there is a hint of regret that we did not seal our dominance with a goal. Really, what we could have done with WAS a referee willing to handicap the opposition by sending off one of their centre halves after twenty five minutes.LD.