Gunners exit, but show their mettle
In the end a brave and spirited Arsenal fell just short against AC Milan, but in their 3-0 win against the Italian champions a manifesto for a brighter future at Emirates Stadium could be found.
Arsene Wenger's young team were slaughtered 4-0 at the San Siro three weeks' ago, but on Tuesday night they were unrecognisable from the naive, limp force who capitulated so spectacularly in Italy. This was the Arsenal that Wenger has always envisioned - bursting with vigour and imagination and, at their best, a match for any team in Europe. They were more than a match for Milan.
Wenger was good to his word and sent out an Arsenal line-up that screamed attacking adventure. Tomas Rosicky, Robin van Persie, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Gervinho all started, and for all intents and purposes left Alex Song to perform an entire midfield's defensive duties on his own.
The home fans came in hope rather than expectation, but they were soon whipped into a frenzy by an irresistible first-half performance from Arsenal that cast Milan as the dour, spent force they were before the Massimiliano Allegri renaissance gave them life again. Given ample encouragement, the Gunners and their fans dared to dream. Who could blame them?
It all started on seven minutes, when Oxlade-Chamberlain's fizzing corner was met by Laurent Koscielny and the defender powered a header past Christian Abbiati. It was simple goal and in its making could be found an early sign that Milan were not focused mentally. The marking was less than attentive, and any time you concede from a corner at this level it has to go down as a defensive lapse.
From there on it was all Arsenal. Rosicky in particular was imperious in midfield, drifting past tackles and flicking telling passes all over the place. Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott and Gervinho were hungry for possession and making the most of it with strong runs and neat, intelligent touches. Meanwhile Song and the defence behind him were given little to worry about by the pairing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, who destroyed them at the San Siro and did the same to Palermo at the weekend.
Inevitably it wasn't long before a chance came the way of Van Persie. When it did, the prolific Dutchman shifted the ball in front of him and curled a shot towards the top corner from 20 yards as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Abbiati dived high to his right to deny him, but with barely 20 minutes on the clock Arsenal had already had enough encouragement to suggest they were playing for more than pride.
Soon enough they had the second they deserved, scored by the man who most deserved it. When Walcott's cross was weakly cleared by Thiago Silva, Rosicky was in place to slot home from close range and send the already excited home support into a state of delirium. Arsenal were halfway there, with only a quarter of the game gone. Anything was possible now.
There was still more to come before half-time; when the rampaging Oxlade-Chamberlain set about dissecting Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino, the Milan pair came together to halt his progress. Penalty to Arsenal; time for Van Persie to do what he can't stop doing. Milan indulged in a bout of gamesmanship before the kick could be taken, but the captain was unmoved and smashed a shot into the top right to make it 3-0.
"He scores when he wants," they bellowed from all but one corner of the stadium. "Robin van Persie, he scores when he wants."
But no sooner had Gunners fans glimpsed the Promised Land, then Milan cut through them as easily as they had four times in the first leg. Stephan El Shaarawy had the goal at his mercy, but Wojciech Szczesny spread himself well and the forward shot wide. It had taken the Italian champions the entire half, but finally they had seen the flaw in Arsenal's plan.
"Stand up if you still believe," the buoyant Arsenal fans sang to meet the start of the second half. The attendance stood at just under 60,000, but this was a night to herald an atmosphere as good as any you'll find in the Champions League this season. So much for the Emirates being soulless, it was positively heaving with emotion and spirit.
Sadly for Gunners fans the second half didn't live up to the first, but how could it? Milan came out fighting for their Champions League lives and, no doubt propelled by some choice words from their manager, began to push for a goal themselves.
It fell on Szczesny to dive bravely at the feet of Ibrahimovic to deny him on 54 minutes, and the Pole would thwart him again 20 minutes later. Nocerino was also refused a route to the goal by the goalkeeper, who was Arsenal's star performer against Liverpool and once again proved himself a man for the big occasion.
Meanwhile Arsenal struggled to create as freely as they had in the first half. Milan played tighter and with more concentration, and it didn't help the Gunners' attacking cause when Walcott went off injured on 75 minutes and Oxlade-Chamberlain followed him soon after. Time drifted by and Milan's stifling tactics proved effective. Suddenly it was the visitors who looked the more likely to score and what had seemed inevitable at kick-off seemed inevitable once more. The home side were going out.
Arsenal's best, and perhaps only real chance to send the match into extra-time fell to that man Van Persie, but for once the club's saviour was found wanting. He chipped straight at Abbiati from six yards out on the hour-mark when perhaps he should have hammered it, but few would criticise the Dutchman on current form. Although, with that miss went the miracle of the Emirates.
But Arsenal's defeat could do nothing to subdue the mood of optimism. When the final whistle came, Wenger's men were rightly lauded by the supporters who have seen them beat Tottenham, Liverpool and now Milan in succession, and done so with a level of application and confidence that can only bode well for their chances of qualifying for the Champions League next season.
Wenger still has to buy in the summer to mount a realistic challenge for silverware next season, but if he can harness the collective spirit his players have demonstrated in their last three games, his Arsenal vision is still very much one to believe in. Against Milan, the Gunners finally showed their mettle.