Milan 0 Arsenal 2 (Fabregas 84, Adebayor 90)
Gone are the days when English sides run around like headless chickens in Europe, scaring their opponents for half an hour with the blistering ferocity and pace of the play, only to tire and get picked off by their more technically adept adversaries. Welcome instead to the days when controlled pace and skill wear down experienced campaigners until they buckle under the unrelenting pressure.
This was European football at its best, its classiest, and that is an accolade normally reserved for the now vanquished AC Milan. They are the experts, or at least they were until last night.
Attacking Milan in the San Siro whilst knowing that one slip, one mistake, and you could be facing the exit door against perhaps the best defence is Europe is an enormous ask. But Wenger talked about bravery and spirit, and it was there in abundance last night.
Once the first fifteen minutes had been negotiated, in which Cesc cleared a header away from the line and Milan looked threatening from set pieces, the Arsenal midfield took control. Flamini, Cesc, and more surprisingly Hleb were biting into tackles and fighting for every ball, and when Adebayor was needed as an outlet, he was able to outfox his markers for long enough to receive support, no moment more noticeable than when he somehow wriggled around Nesta before feeding Diaby, who shot wide.
As the half progressed, the home fans grew frustrated with the lack of possession their team was enjoying, while Fabregas began to spray the passes around with great effect. All too often though, Milan were getting the last ditch tackle or block in, so Kalac had little to do until Cesc cracked the bar with a superb swerving shot. Shortly after, Adebayor tested the big keeper with another rising drive.
While Arsenal were in total control of possession, Milan still had the players to threaten on the counter, and once Kaka had fed Pato, hearts went into mouths, but the young Brazilian chose not to smash home, instead trying to lift the ball over Almunia and making a mess of the execution. It was to be the best chance they got all night.
Arsenal didn’t want half time, but if anything, the second half display was even more dominating. Senderos connected well with a half volley from a corner but struck it straight at Kalac, before Eboue fired wastefully wide when he was, for once, afforded the space by the otherwise excellent Maldini. As the match entered the last quarter, it was effectively a next goal wins scenario, and having missed so many chances, you wondered whether Milan were going to sneak it in true Italian style.
They wouldn’t. After good work from Hleb, Cesc got the ball just past halfway, ran with it, and without much of a backlift fired from distance. Kalac hadn’t set himself, was slow in getting down, and by the time he flung out a desperate hand the ball had skidded off the greasy surface and into the corner. A great strike, but the keeper will be disappointed with himself.
Nonetheless, it was the very least Arsenal deserved, and Milan were instantaneously killed off. The second and icing on the cake goal was almost inevitable, and it was suitable that it was Walcott setting it up, storming past Kalahdze despite giving the Milan man a huge headstart, and Adebayor finishing it off after Theo calmly slid it across goal. 2-0 was a fairer reflection on a masterclass performance.
The match, and the tie, was won in midfield. Every time Milan won the ball after an Arsenal attack, the advanced trio of Flamini, Cesc and Hleb were seen chasing back and beyond the counter attack, before winning the ball and charging forward again. Their energy was boundless, and it was no wonder Hleb looked exhausted when eventually substituted in the dying seconds. He’d given his all.
Eboue was better defensively, but offered little going forward and his shot was woeful, and while Diaby did his best on the left, you can’t help but feel the returning Rosicky will be better suited there in future rounds.
The defence were magnificent. Senderos and Gallas stood tall and withstood everything thrown at them, while Clichy and Sagna gave classic wing back performances. Superb stuff, and that back four are looking extremely solid at the moment.
The referee was abysmal, and as I realised I would be writing that I hoped even more that an Arsenal win would prevent the predictable ‘sour grapes’ response. He really was dreadful – on so many occasions he refused to play a clear advantage, blew up for nothing, booked Hleb for diving when he was clearly fouled, booked Inzaghi and Clichy for nothing, got throw ins and corners wrong, and generally loved the sound of his own whistle. That such an open game was possible despite his frequent interruptions is a credit to both times. He could easily have ruined it.
But today is a day for positives. Those same pundits who were writing the team off days ago are now predicting league and European doubles. Their fickleness is transparent and while the talk of implosion was premature, so must the feet stay on the ground today. It was a wonderful night, but let’s make it a wonderful week and go four points clear at the weekend.
And a final mention for Milan too, who lost with class. Their fans stayed behind to applaud the Arsenal players, and since then both Ancelotti and Kaka have admitted they were simply beaten by a better team. There is much respect there, gained through the course of two matches, and flowing both ways. I hope they qualify for next season’s competition.
Enjoy your day after the night that was.