So, the exit from the Champions League is not unexpected, the ease at which we turned over Milan last night, and how close we came to forcing extra-time, maybe was.
We were as fantastic in the first half as we were poor for the first leg. Milan seemed to think the result was a forgone conclusion and if ever there was a team that played with the handbrake on they were it. We started brightly, went forward straight from the kick-off and the early goal was no surprise.
The quality of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corners was really excellent, the speed and whip he got on them is Beckham-esque, and it was from one of those deliveries we opened the scoring. Laurent Koscielny avoided his marker and was left free to head into the bottom corner in the 6th minute. Just the start we needed.
We made all the running, Rosicky and van Persie made a bit of a mess of a two on one on the edge of their box, and van Persie forced a good save from Abiatti with an effort from the edge of the box. Defensively we looked sound even if my heart was in my mouth every time they got the ball, the knowledge that one goal for them would mean we had to get six playing its part.
Tomas Rosicky discovered goals are like buses, you wait for ages then a couple arrive at once. Sort of. Anyway, when Thiago Silva’s feeble clearance from a Walcott cross fell to him in the box he calmly side-footed the ball into the bottom corner to make it 2-0 to Arsenal and it was well and truly on at that stage.
And it was even onner just before half-time when the fantastic Oxlade-Chamberlain surged forward from his more defensive midfield role into the Milan box. Two players blocked him off, the ref pointed to the spot and after a bit of gamesmanship over the placement of the ball on the spot van Persie smacked it home to make it 3-0 to Arsenal.
There was a bit of a scare just before the break when Milan found a way through our defence, creating a fairly clear cut chance for El Shaarawy, but his effort summed up the Italians in the first half as he contrived to put it well wide with just Szczesny to beat. A warning sign for Arsenal, maybe, but at 3-0 up at half-time we couldn’t complain.
It was clear that Milan had been given something of a talking to at half-time and were much better in the second half. They realised as well that simply falling to the ground under any kind of Arsenal challenge would result in a free kick and they took advantage of the that and a referee who seemed out of his depth. Perhaps, being cynical about it, we should have done the same. The ref didn’t seem biased to me, just rubbish, and I suspect he’d have given us the same kind of free kicks if we’d gone looking for them.
Then came the chance that people will spend probably too much time reflecting on. A Gervinho shot was saved by Abiatti, it fell to van Persie inside the six yard box and with the keeper on the ground he tried to dink it over him. Abiatti got a strong hand up to make the save and what should have been 4-0 remained 3-0. You’d have put all the money you had on van Persie scoring from there but how can you criticise the guy? These things happen.
And with that we seemed to run out of steam. Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up a hamstring problem early in the half and was quite subdued from that point on, while the pressing and harrying carried out by the team as a whole was energy sapping, especially so soon after the Liverpool game at the weekend. Milan came back into it, should have scored when a poor Szczesny kick fell to Imbrahimovic, and should definitely have scored when a cross from our left fell to Nocerino who somehow missed from about three yards out.
The introductions of Chamakh and Park weren’t effective, what we needed was a midfielder to try and get something of a hold on the game, but with so many out injured the manager’s hands were tied there. Even without long-termers like Wilshere or Diaby, having one of Benayoun, Ramsey, Arteta or even Coquelin might have made the difference.
In the end the fourth goal was just a step too far and I have to say, given the way the squad is at the moment, I’m not too upset that it didn’t happen. What we wanted from last night, realistically, was to restore some pride and to keep confidence high as we head into the final part of the season. That we came so close to forcing extra time is frustrating, of course, but I think we have to recognise what an effort they put in and whether or not we were even capable of another half an hour of football.
Afterwards, Arsene said:
The players put in a faultless performance, with fantastic spirit and you can only congratulate the whole team. We can only be proud of our performance.
Overall we keep our winning run going, which is important, but unfortunately we paid the price for a bad first game.
And that’s it in a nutshell really, the first leg pretty much doomed us, and last night, for me at least, was more about keeping this good run we’re on going and restoring some price than qualification for the next round. It was a brilliant effort when you consider how the squad was weakened, in midfield in particular. The manager revealed that Oxlade-Chamberlain was ill the night before and wasn’t even sure to start. That he did, and that he played so well in central midfield at his age, is a real testament to his quality.
The manager was also quick to praise the newly effervescent Tomas Rosicky who had another great game and it’s nice to see him step up and be an important player when we need him. More than anyone he looked gutted at the final whistle last night, and in general the players looked shattered that they’d come so close to what would have been a remarkable turn around.
And while that’s absolutely natural – and what you would expect from any good professionals – you have to hope that in the cold light of day they will take away far more positives from the result than anything else. There is no point dwelling on the negatives, they’re long gone from that night in the San Siro. What they should feel is pride, at how they played and how they won the game, and confidence based on the last three results we’ve had.
We’ve come back from the brink of all out mutiny to win three in a row against Sp*rs, Liverpool and now AC Milan. I know we roll our eyes a bit when Arsene talks about character and mental strength but there’s no denying we’ve seen plenty of that over the last three games. And that’s what they need to take into the rest of the Premier League season.
All you can ever ask from a team is that they go out and give 100% for the shirt. When that doesn’t happen it’s frustrating and maddening as a fan, but there’s absolutely no room for complaint when we do what we did last night. They did themselves proud and when the tired legs and hearts recover a bit I’m sure that’s the message that will be drilled into them on the training ground ahead of our next game.
Let’s focus on the positives, keep the momentum going, and make sure we continue where we left off against Newcastle.