Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday March 7 2012
I never genuinely believed Arsenal would overturn this tie. But, making my way to the stadium for what was essentially a dead rubber in its most distilled form, I did want to see a vibrant performance and a win on the night. Chiefly to mend some wounded pride and to show the world that the aberration in Italy was a horrible one off and to keep the momentum of recent results as the wind in our sails for the rest of the season. I always felt the tie was up. The game never was though as far as I could see. It`s fair to say, I got what I came for.
Disappointing but not surprising that there were banks of empty seats before kickoff, many petulantly surrendered their support. Probably the same people that complain about the players` effort. Fortunately, the team at least wanted to set about reversing the mess they had made in Milan three weeks ago. It was clear the Gunners were going to need an early goal, as necessity as well as circumstance forced an attacking side with Chamberlain in central midfield. What was interesting was that The Ox fulfilled an Arteta type role, as opposed to the Ramsey slot I thought he was bookmarked for.
It was clear the Gunners would need a quick start and a fast goal. They achieved that objective. On 7 minutes, Chamberlain swung in an inviting corner; Milan`s defending was utterly laughable. No man on either post and Laurent Koscielny rose to head into the corner without a Rossineri within three yards of him. Realistically, he probably could have taken the ball down and still found time to spank a shot into the net. Arsenal played intelligently in that, after scoring, they made sure to stay compact for a minute or two, being sure not to concede the away goal that would kill the tie stone dead. On 11 minutes, Walcott raced down the right and played a ball to van Persie, who shot from a tight angle, only to be rebuked by the legs of Abbiati. Over the two legs, it`s fair to say the Italian keeper proved to be something of a thorn in van Persie`s side.
He again denied van Persie, as the Dutchman picked up Gervinho`s pass on the edge of the area, was given time to turn and sent a bending shot towards the corner which Abbiati tipped around the post. Just as the momentum appeared to be sapping from the limbs of the players and the voices of the crowd, Arsenal were given another gift courtesy of shonky Milan defending. Walcott`s low cross was scuffed by Thiago Silva, straight to the feet of the pendulous Rosicky. The Czech calmed himself, controlling the ball with a delicate touch, before steering it low into the corner. A quarter of the way into the game and Arsenal had achieved 50% of their target.
There were impressive performances all over the pitch from Arsenal. Vermaelen and Koscielny were eager into interceptions, beginning attacks on the front foot. Rosicky injected energy and accuracy into midfield. Chamberlain too played his role with a maturity that belied his years. He knew exactly when to make himself available to his centre halves, when to track back and when to go forward. An 18 year old that likes and is very good at running at players, could have been forgiven for entering the game with a very gun-ho attitude. He didn`t. He picked his moment to drive at the heart of Milan`s defence brilliantly, tearing into the area and forcing Mesbah to bring him down in the area.
The referee, who was an absolute disgrace of an official it must be said, waited patiently for the silly little man with the dildo behind the goal to give the decision for an incident that occurred right under his magic wand. Typically, he didn`t. So filled with excrement were his undergarments, that even the most incompetent of officials had to cut his meat for him and point to the spot. The referee then allowed Mark van Bommel (has such a filthy player ever simultaneously been such a histrionic piss your pants girlie when tackled himself?) to officiate the penalty, indulging some gamesmanship that the referee gullibly bought into. But van Persie was not fazed and smashed his penalty into the corner. 3-0. 3 minutes before half time. Game on.
However, there was a little warning in Milan`s immediate response which suggested that they had woken from their slumber. Ibrahimovic worked the ball wide to El Shaarawy. With Gervinho unwilling to track back, Gibbs was left exposed. But Szczesny was out quickly and made himself as big as possible, indulging the Schmeichel-esque star shape figure of which he is so fond to close off the angle. The result was that El Shaarawy`s effort went just wide. The half time whistle was a relief as you sensed Milan were being stung into action. My hope at half time was to see Arsenal relax, try to keep it tight, being sure not to concede, before regrouping with a final last twenty minute push. I think that was the plan, but they just didn`t quite have the legs for it. Understandably so.
The Milanese began to look more threatening as tired Arsenal legs struggled to support their defence. El Shaarawy`s through ball put Ibrahimovic through on goal, but Szczesny was out swiftly with a vital interception. The Gunners` big chance came on the hour mark. Gervinho wriggled into some space in the area, his shot was deflected, causing Abbiati to parry the ball with his shins. Van Persie was quickest to the rebound, he tried to dink the ball over Abbiati but the Rossineri keeper was equal to the effort, unfazed by the kidology. The Dutchman stood with his head in his hands. Looking at the replay, you have to credit the goalkeeping. Abbiati was up so swiftly that he was inches away from van Persie by the time he got to the rebound. A blasted finish would have yielded the same result.
The hearts were steely and willing, but the lactic acid was beginning to grip the legs. The manager just didn`t have the bench at his disposal to stem the tide and steady the midfield. The game changed when Chamberlain appeared to hurt his back when sprinting to the edge of his own area to offer defensive cover. Arsenal just never had the same control over possession after he departed. Szczesny was almost punished for his sole error of the last three games when his attempted quick clearance to Song was misplaced, falling to the feet of Ibrahimovic. The Swede lashed his shot wide with the goal winking at him. Milan passed up an even more gilt edged opportunity when Aquilani`s low cross found Necerino completely unmarked in the Arsenal six yard area, but he somehow contrived to spoon the ball straight at Szczesny.
As the final whistle sounded, the exhausted players slumped on the turf, but were soon picked up by the standing ovation they received from all inside the stadium. A Herculean effort. It was a performance of desire and quality, but in the end it was a lack of petrol in the tank that prevented them from seeing it over the line. We exited the tie with plenty of regrets. But every single one of them from the first leg. We have two games in fifteen days now, which should aid some recoveries, but importantly we keep our pride and we keep the head of steam we have built up. Quite simply, in our last three games we`ve scored ten and conceded three against quality opponents. More subtly we`ve found goals from other areas of the team in that time. It`s important we continue to take what we have shown into the run in. Third place is still up for grabs. I don`t believe in heroic defeats as a general rule. But there are exceptions to every rule. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 15.CHAMBERLAIN (29.Chamakh `75), 7.ROSICKY, 14.WALCOTT (9.J-Y.Park `81), 27.GERVINHO, 10.v.PERSIE©. Unused: 20.Djourou, 21.Fabianski, 25.Jenkinson, 49.Miquel, 53.Ozyakup.
Date:Wednesday March 7 2012
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