In the small matter of five hours, Arsenal will be taking on the European champions Milan in a delicately poised Champions League knockout match. That tells only a small portion of the story.
Arsenal are struggling for form domestically, but then Milan have been poor in Serie A all season too. Either side can step up their performance levels for these sorts of matches, as we saw in the first leg. Arsenal attacked with verve, Milan defended with class. It was one of the more fascinating goalless draws you’ll see.
And it sets tonight up perfectly. Milan sometimes break away from their defensive and patient mindset (see their extra time victory over Celtic last season after 180 goalless minutes) to destroy a side in quick bursts, as they did in the opening stages against United last season. However, they did that safe in the knowledge that they had two away goals from the first leg – a United counter attack goal then would have caused less of a disaster than an Arsenal one would tonight.
If Milan score early, they have the expertise to defend and counter attack and Arsenal will be in trouble. If Arsenal score early, Milan will need to score twice and will open themselves up to speedy Arsenal counter attacks, which would stretch their ageing defence.
It is a common cliche that the first goal is crucial in big matches. But with both sides preferring to counter attack tonight, it is more vital than in any match in recent memory. In fact, I’d go as far as to say the first goal will probably win it – Milan can’t batter our defence without conceding on the break, and Milan would probably be too canny if we had to do the same.
Team wise, it looks like Eboue will come in for Walcott, with Hleb operating at the front of a five man midfield, behind Adebayor. Van Persie is the impact sub, but don’t expect too much from the man – I feel his real contribution will come after tonight. That said, if we get a free kick, right of centre, about 25 yards out…..
I’m backing Cesc to score in the first twenty, and silence the San Siro. Why? I think he’s set up for another coming of age moment.
Enjoy it, wherever you are, if you can.