Arsenal's youngsters miss their chance
ARSENAL 0 - 0 AC MILAN
It was a moment that could just have changed the order of European football's elite.
With a matter of seconds remaining in a fascinating and captivating Champions League last-sixteen tie at the Emirates Stadium, Emmanuel Adebayor loped towards a cross and wearily thrust himself at a chance that looked certain to yield a dramatic winning goal.
Off balance he may have been, yet after 93 and a half minutes of high quality toil, this was Arsenal's chance to confirm they were ready to beat a major superpower and claim their place among the game's giants. It was to be heartache and not celebration that followed.
As Adebayor collapsed onto the turf behind the goal after heading his effort off the crossbar, he knew the significance of the chance he had missed; and while Arsenal will dream of a famous victory at the San Siro in the return leg, you suspect the key moment in this tie had just passed Arsene Wenger's men by.
Like an Olympic sprinter who false starts in the 100m final or the Superbowl quarter-back who fluffs his chance to throw the winning touchdown pass with second remaining, Adebayor had blown his moment to burst the Milan bubble and fill Arsenal's with enough air to carry them towards the Champions League quarter-finals.
If this joyous Arsenal side were to confirm they were ready to claim their place among Europe's superpowers, this was the occasion for them to make their mark and try as they might in the opening 45 minutes at a misty and vibrant Emirates Stadium, they fail to break down the sturdy Milan door.
Arsene Wenger's vision of football is that of an art performed by maestros with a touch of fantasy in their hearts, yet Carlo Ancelotti and his Milan side have been mixing it in the real world for a little too long to allow opponents to provide such enchantment.
It meant we were presented with a first half that followed Ancelotti's script rather than Wenger's. Boring it was not, as two sets of hugely talented players displayed a range of passing and ball possession most footabllers could only dream about, yet the clear cut chances and genuine excitement in front of goal was lacking.
While Milan can take the bulk of the blame for stifling the excitement, Arsenal's policy of employing just one striker, in Emmanuel Adebayor, was playing into the Italian's hands. With Eduardo employed in a supporting role on the left side and Alex Hleb in a similarly attacking position on the right, Wenger clearly believed his attack minded side would find a way to untangle the Milan web, but they failed to break through.
Indeed, by the time they reached the half hour point, long balls to Adebayor were becoming a regular line of attack and even though the big Togo striker was a handful throughout, there was always a spare defender for Milan to rely upon as they targeted the draw they shamelessly craved.
For their part, Milan also started with a lone forward in Alexandre Pato, with the irrepressible Kaka charged with the task of supporting when best he could; yet the European champions had not come to London aiming to win any beauty contests. Their chief aim was to stop Arsenal and as they walked off for the half-time break, their plan was being clinically executed.
Watching a game of this quality on television doesn't always do it justice and watching the off the ball movement of Arsenal was a sight to behold.
The inventive Emmanuel Eboue went close to finding an opener as the game began to open up and then Adebayor was denied the opening goal by a lineman's flag; yet you got the feeling the ageing Milan defence would eventually crack as Eduardo was the next to go close as he fired a shot over the bar.
It seemed as if the Arsenal pressure was beginning to tell, yet Milan are masters of puncturing the ambition of untested upstarts such as this and as the game moved into its final quarter, their ability to hang onto the ball and frustrate an opponent became evident once again.
In the end, they held off their opponents with a certain degree of ease and while this was only the first half of Ancelotti's game plan, Arsenal still have to prove they have what it takes to turn potential into glory. Often overplaying when in good positions around the box and failing to snap up the fleeting chances they created, Wenger was forced to accept his side had surrendered any initiative.
'Milan will start as favourites for the second leg,' conceded the Arsenal boss. 'However, we can overcome this situation and the pressure we put on them throughout this game will count for something in the next game. They will remember the quality of our play tonight and if we had taken our chances, we would have won.
'A game of this quality deserved a goal and I don't believe the miss by Adebayor in the final few seconds will prove to be crucial. We were a little nervous in the final third tonight and may have rushed some of the chances we created, but we will have a great chance in the second leg. I just hope the poor state of the San Siro pitch doesn't play a decisive role.'
A glance at the Milan bench suggested the Italians have a squad to trump Arsenal as Wenger was forced to fall back on a bunch of untested kids, with Ancelotti opting to leave out the likes of Filipo Inzaghi, Alberto Gilardino and Emerson. Therein lies the strength of a side who have won this competition compared to one still striving to reach such a goal and two-time Champions League winning boss was delighted with his evening's work.
'We arrived at this match in not perfect conditions and some of our players were not at their best, but we hope that will change in 15 days time,' said Ancelotti, who started with a few star names at less 100% full fitness. 'I think Arsenal played a very good game and proved everything we know about them. They have great players, great quality and a lot of determination.
'The qualification is still in doubt for us. This is a good result, but we are not safe for the return match. There is still everything to play for and we face a tough task in the second leg. I'm sure Arsenal will show great quality in the return leg and must improve our own physical condition in the next 15 days.'
Arsenal still have a chance to spare Adebayor some blushes after a glaring miss that will haunt him for a long time should it prove crucial. You suspect Milan will make him pay for the error of his ways.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Phillipe Senderos
This may be a controversial choice, but the big Swiss centre-back is loathed by many Arsenal fans and deserves more than a little credit for a stunning display after replacing the injured Kolo Toure early in this game. He barely put a foot wrong.
FOOD WATCH: Chicken in breadcrumbs with pasta and potatoes. It was hardly a combination a gourmet chef would have put together, but all three aspects tasted fine on their own.
TOTTI WATCH: The great Roma striker may not have been present at the Emirates Stadium, yet the stale old English hacks who normally frequent this press room were delighted by the number of female Italian reporters lighting up their dull lives. There was more glamour in this press room than any England has seen for many a year.
ARSENAL VERDICT: Most experts have long viewed Arsene Wenger's men as surprise Premier League frontrunners who would fall away in due course, yet they are proving to be genuine title contenders in their domestic competition. Yet on the evidence of this evening, they are not quite yet ready to oust the best in Europe.