Milan take Gunners apart
Former Tottenham man Kevin-Prince Boateng scored a sensational volley and Manchester City outcast Robinho bagged a classy brace as Arsenal were thumped 4-0 by AC Milan in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie on Wednesday.
In a season that currently sees Arsenal trailing North London rivals Spurs by ten points in the Premier League, it was a former White Hart Lane employee who struck the first telling blow at the San Siro, Boateng smashing a wonderful volley off the underside of Wojciech Szczesny's bar to spark a rout in Italy.
Another former Premier League misfit, Robinho, then added goals either side of half-time before Zlatan Ibrahimovic deservedly rounded off the scoring, winning and converting a 78th-minute penalty to put the seal on an embarrassing night for Arsenal. Arsene Wenger chose to select Thierry Henry on the bench for his last match before the legendary striker returns to the MLS, with Tomas Rosicky filling the wide left position. Meanwhile, at the back Kieran Gibbs was restored to left-back, allowing Thomas Vermaelen to move into the centre to fill the void left by Per Mertesacker.
Certainly the Arsenal defence did not cope with the movement of Ibrahimovic and Robinho all night, and the Serie A giants dominated almost from first whistle to last after Rosicky's early long-range effort.
Clarence Seedorf rifled into the side-netting in a brief cameo before he was forced off by injury, and on 15 minutes Milan had a deserved lead. Boateng broke from midfield into the inside-right channel of the Arsenal penalty area, where he cushioned the ball with his chest before controlling a difficult volley, slamming the ball into the net with such unerring precision that many fans inside the ground wondered if the ball had actually crossed the line.
It had, and soon Milan were threatening again, showing little intention to simply hold on to their 1-0 advantage. Antonio Nocerino drove just over from distance and Boateng wasted a two-on-one breakaway, all the while with Mark van Bommel imperious at the base of the midfield.
A second goal always looked likely and it came gift-wrapped by Ibrahimovic who, not for the first time, spun into space behind Bacary Sagna to attack the left side of the Arsenal area. Reaching the byline at ease with Sagna lazily retreating, Ibrahimovic clipped a cross back to Robinho with his left foot, and the Brazilian re-adjusted brilliantly to head past Szczesny.
Wenger responded by throwing on the club's record goalscorer Henry for the anonymous Theo Walcott, but within four minutes they were 3-0 down. Vermaelen was unfortunate to slip on the edge of his own area, and Robinho simply allowed the ball to roll across his body before firing low into the corner past Szczesny.
Arsenal waited until the 65th minute to produce their first moment of quality and it came from Henry. Using the outside of his boot to flick the ball into Robin van Persie's path, the Frenchman allowed his strike partner to volley towards the bottom corner where Christian Abbiati made a superb one-handed save.
However, Wenger had by now thrown caution to the wind, and Arsenal paid the price when Ibramovich dropped a shoulder to trick his way past the hapless Johan Djourou, who could only pull the giant Swede down. Szczesny guessed right with the penalty, but it carried too much fizz from the enigmatic right boot of Ibrahimovic, and Van Persie could not grab Arsenal a lifeline with a header at the death.
Zenit St Petersburg grabbed a dramatic 3-2 victory over Benfica in freezing conditions in Russia, as errors from both sides added to the intrigue. In -10 degree temperatures, Zenit were favourites to take a lead to Portugal for the second-leg, but found themselves behind midway through the first-half as Maxi Pereira turned in a rebound after sloppy goalkeeping from Zenit's Yuri Zhevnov.
The Russian side hit back strongly and within minutes were level through Roman Shirokov, as the midfielder guided home Tomas Hubocan's cross with a delicate side-footed finish. An end-to-end game ensued, but there was little in the way of penetration from either side until the match was drawing to a close. With just 20 minutes remaining, Zenit made the breakthrough with a goal of stunning quality. A back-heeled flick from Alexander Kerzhakov found substitute Vladimir Bystrov, who crossed first-time for Sergei Semak to turn in with an exquisite piece of skill.
Benfica responded in positive fashion, bringing on another forward, and were rewarded when a second mistake from Zhevnov in the Zenit goal allowed Oscar Cardozo to turn the rebound home to level with just minutes to play. Maybe Benfica thought the draw was secured, but almost immediately Zenit had restored their lead. Calamitous defending from Pereira meant the ball dropped to Shirokov once more in the area, and the midfielder made no mistake with his finish. Zenit will take the win, but Benfica will be quietly confident ahead of the home-leg with two away goals to their name.