Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday March 6 2008
High up in the upper enclaves of the third tier of the San Siro and shortly after the final whistle, I received a text message from my mate Darryl, 'BIG FAT HAIRY FECKING YESSSSSSSS!' It's hard to know how to elaborate on that really. But for your delectation I shall try!
Despite our lack of a European trophy, we have had some memorable European nights under Wenger's stewardship. I have been lucky enough to have been present at the Bernebeu, in the Stadio Olimpico for Henry's hat trick, the 5-1 demolition of Inter and the glorious night in Villarreal. (There again, I stood in -14 degrees for a miserable surrender in Munich, watched on with a horrible chest infection in Eindhoven and don't even get me started on John bloody Carew). In terms of the feeling of euphoria, only Villarreal tops this for me. But in terms of a masterful and satisfying performance, when all around us doubted and mocked, this game wins hands down. When they said our season was running out of steam, a little locomotive named Cesc Fabregas kicked it straight back into turbo. When they said our fight was fading, a scrapper named Flamini donned gloves and executed a technical knockout. When they said we were losing our nerve, Billy the Kid entered the saloon at high noon with all guns blazing. When they said Walcott was a shrinking violet, he strutted onto the big stage and fanned his wings.
This wasn't just about Tuesday night though, over 180 minutes, some of the greatest names of my generation; Kaka, Inzaghi, Pirlo, Gattuso and the emerging Pato have caused us no trouble at all. That is an immense credit to the likes of Flamini (having now convincingly outshone Gattuso, does the nickname 'Mattuso' now sound like an intentionally ironic annointment? Much like the Romford Pele), Senderos, Sagna, Clichy and the marshall Gallas. Big teams answer the big questions on the big occasions and that is what these guys have done. If the Bernebeu illuminated the potential of Wenger's young charges, surely the San Siro part deux emphasises potential realised. Wenger's tactics were absolutely spot on, we pressured Milan high up the pitch and did not allow them to establish any kind of rhythm. Pirlo, Gattuso and Ambrosini cut impotent and frustrated figures as Hleb, Diaby, Flamini and Cesc pushed them into unneccessary errors. Aside from a ten minute spell early in the first half, Milan have been dominated over two games.
My journey did not get off to a great start. As I left my house on Sunday night, on the last bus aiming for the last train heading towards City airport, the sudden realisation that I had left my match ticket at home had me making haste from the bus in desperation. Fortunately, some creative grovelling to the local cab company got me out of a jam. Was this to be an omen? Our flight to Zurich was then delayed half an hour, leaving us only minutes to catch our connecting flight to Milano. But we arrived safely and soundly on the Monday afternoon. Despite being the fashion capital of the world, Milan is not the most picturesque city. Much of the scenery is crumbling or under reconstruction. From our last visit here in 2003, we knew there was not a great deal in the way of tourist attractions, so we settled for a few beers and a hearty meal in the early evening. Come nightfall we headed for the city's Navigli district to a few of Milan's disco bars, gatecrashing a student night where the scenery was, ahem, exquisite. (Lads, if you've been to Italy, you know exactly what I mean!) The beers flowed until around midnight, until we were twice curtailed in our attempts to muscle our way into the only drinking establishment in Milan still open. (I translated 'private party' to mean 'no English football fans allowed.')
Come matchday we headed over to the city centre in the Duomo piazza where the big cathedral provides a stunning backdrop. The weather was bright and warm as we met with Greg in the main piazza and stopped for some lunch amongst a throbbing mass of Gooners. We niftily spotted that the restaurant in which we ate had a downstairs night club that stayed open into the wee small hours. Our post match watering hole had been identified. As we left our hotel for the game around six oclock to meet Greg and Rich (who had bravely booked a flight which landed in Milan at 4pm on matchday), myself and Trev stepped into the lift to find that somebody had left a pair of novelty glasses on the floor. You know those stock standard comedy specs with the moustache and comedy nose? Yeah, well instead of a nose these specs had a rubber phallus. Tres drole. Trev pocketed them thinking he may get a cheap laugh or two later. Having thought no more of Trev's lucky find, we found ourselves on the packed metro heading to Lotto for the game, when Trev went to remove his coat, having completely forgotten that he had pocketed a rubber cock about half an hour previously, so there it was poking out of his inside pocket for all to see. The look on this Italian woman's face was utterly priceless. When you are heading to a game engulfed in bowel clenching tension, there is nothing like a good laugh to alleviate the nerves. Needless to say, said artefact has now been adopted as a lucky mascot and will travel with us to Wigan on Sunday. (I hope their police searches at the turnstiles aren't too stringent!)
We made our way up the South West tier and into our seats high in the Gods. In Europe, it is rare that you sit in your designated seat, so the earlier you arrive, the better chance you have to sit with large groups of mates in the best seats. This always contributes to a good atmosphere building well before kick off. Milan's infamous 'irreducibles' sat in the stand facing us, the ground was 3/4 full two hours before kick off. On the way to the ground, we had discussed how Adebayor's last minute miss in the first leg might prove to be a blessing in disguise, I said on these pages that I felt the advantage was with us after the first leg, we had an idea that we could hurt them in the latter stages with our superior energy. We knew we had to score, so our gameplan was not neutralised by an inhibiting sense of pervasive caution. We went for Milan, snapping at them when they were in possession, pressing their ageing backline. But as the chances passed, I felt it wasn't to be our night. I remember watching Lyon and PSV in recent years take Milan apart in the Giuseppe Meazza only for the wily Italians to snatch victory at the death.
But with six minutes remaining, the impudent young Fabregas hit a low shot which surprised all of us when it went in. It was utter pandemonium as the ball snaked into the net, within milliseconds I was buried under a sea of bodies. The coup de grace in injury time nearly brought tears to the eyes, having already reduced Kaka to a crumpled heap and given Pirlo little recourse but to hack him down, Walcott flew past Kaladze to set up Adebayor who proved that, if you give him the ball, he will score. We were kept in for an hour afterwards, but it is worth noting that A.C as a club really did themselves credit. We were informed weeks before of the hour we were to be kept behind (it is common practise in Italy anyway), but the security staff were impeccible. I still shudder when I remember my journey to Rome, upon entry to the stadium the police search I endured stopped just short of indecent assault. But the Milanese police were respectful and calm throughout. In front of me there were three pissed morons in front of the stewards whose conduct, frankly, deserved a baton to the chops. But they were dealt with efficiently and calmly. They even played a History of Highbury DVD while we waited for the home fans to clear. The home fans not only applauded our team from the pitch, but turned and applauded our supporters too. I can't pretend I was nearly as charitable towards PSV last season. Food for thought there. It is easy to be magnanimous in victory I know, but it still has to be said.
We headed to an already identified nightclub at the back of the Duomo piazza and drank well into the early hours. We discussed not only the quality of the victory, but the rammifications it might have for our league campaign. This could be the injection of rocket fuel we need to carry us over the finishing line. I hope to post some photos later taken by my friend Bruno. In one, as we disembarked the stadium, I have my arm around a fellow Gooner, both of us in the midst of a bellowing chant (I'd wager it was 'we're on our waaaaaaaay'). I have never met this guy before, in all likelihood, I may never see him again, but in the picture you'd be forgiven for thinking we were estranged brothers reunited. It was that sort of a night.LD.
Date:Thursday March 6 2008
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