By Richard Clarke
“I have a gut feeling the players can do it,” said Arsène Wenger ahead of the visit of AC Milan, and their 4-0 first-leg lead, to Emirates Stadium. “My job, until 7.45pm on Tuesday night, is to convince them that they can.
“I don’t live in a dream world,” he went on. “I know we have not created an easy situation. We have a five per cent chance - because if you look at the history of results that have been changed at that level, it would be around that.
“But what is important is that we believe that we can be in this five per cent. That’s what is at stake for us – to show that we have the quality to believe we can do it. Even if it is only five per cent.
“Let’s make sure that we don’t miss our chance because we did not believe in it.”
It was rallying cry from a confident manager. Only a foolhardy few would wager serious money on his side going through. But, at the same time, Arsenal have specialised in the improbable recently. Defeats against Tottenham and Liverpool were odds-on for a period before comebacks was completed. This, however, is another level.
It would make history. The loss at the San Siro was Arsenal’s biggest in European competition and if Milan were to squander their advantage, it would be the greatest second-leg capitulation in the timespan of the remodelled Champions League.
Funnily enough, the 2003/04 Milan side currently hold that unenviable record after they went down 4-0 at Deportivo La Coruna having won the first leg 4-1.
However Wenger knows his side require as much to go for them as went against them in Italy. And Milan’s stand-out contributor also needs to have a quiet night.
"I must give credit to Zlatan Ibrahimovic because he and Robinho gave us a terrible time in the first leg,” said Wenger. “It's a big task to keep them quiet on Tuesday.
"If you look at the first game again there was nothing spectacular in there apart from when the ball came into Ibrahimovic and Robinho.
"From very early everything went against us – the second goal was offside and the penalty was a big gift.
"At half time we came out and said: 'come on, let's have a go’. Then Vermaelen slips and it’s 3-0. Then you're in a position on a bad pitch where you have to chase the game because you are nearly out.
"You open yourself up and Italian teams have a quality where they can make it difficult for you so, for me, the whole history of the game went against us.”
But then the Champions League has simply not been a lucky competition for Arsenal in recent years. In the last two tournaments they have been drawn against Barcelona – arguably the best European club side ever, certainly the best in recent times. Given Arsenal won their group this season, Milan was another tough draw.
Certainly the visitors were poor in Milan but they were not lucky either. Christian Abbiati made two fine saves to deny Robin van Persie the lifeline of an away goal. Going into the return leg, Wenger’s squad is stretched to the point that he is considering changing formation.
Tomas Rosicky is the deciding factor. If the Czech international recovers from his groin problem then the manager believes he can retain three in central midfield. If not, the available resources will force, in all probability, 4-4-2. But, as ever, it will be the team not their formation, that decides the game.
“Milan are an experienced side who are on a good run,” said Wenger. “The task is difficult, but if I was a player, I would say it is exciting as well because I have nothing to lose.
“I am not cautious, I want my team to attack well but also defend well. Even if they should score, we have to ignore it and keep going. That is a risk, we have to gamble a bit and go forwards, opening ourselves up a bit, but we will build a team who will have a good drive going forwards, then everybody has to contribute when you do not have the ball to keep a clean sheet.”
Only four teams in the history of European football have overturned a four-goal first-leg deficit. Most of them are a spell-checker’s nightmare - Leixoes against La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1961/62, Real Madrid against Borussia Monchengladbach in 1985/86, and FK Partizan against QPR in 1984/85.
Arsenal have only achieved any kind of return-game turnaround twice – Hajduk Split in 1978/79 and Porto in 2009/10. Each time they had lost the first leg 2-1.
There are morsels of hope in that they have trailed – and yet won – their last three Premier League games. Also, against Aston Villa in the FA Cup and Spurs last month they turned around 2-0 deficits by scoring goals in rapid succession. Something similar is required against the Italian champions and current Serie A leaders.
But then Arsenal’s unpredictability has been evident all season. They followed the Milan defeat by going out of the FA Cup with an equally disappointing defeat at Sunderland.
When they were unluckily 2-0 down to Tottenham you could almost hear the jingle of football’s obituary writers powering up their laptops. They won 5-2.
In the 89th minute at Anfield on Saturday, most reasonable Arsenal fans would have held on tightly to the point they had somehow retained while under pressure. A virtuoso Van Persie goal would give them all three.
The Dutchman definitely starts on Tuesday as Wenger claims it is “not an argument for us” to rest players and accept their fate.
"Champions League games can turn quickly because the players have great quality,” said the manager. “For example if you give chances to Ibrahimovic then he can make two or three goals.
"Sometimes you are quickly punished because the focus is high and the quality is high. I personally feel that we didn't produce a performance [in Milan] not because we didn't want to but we wanted it too much, we were too nervous.
"We were poor and we have to face the truth. I include myself in that. I don't disassociate myself. I feel as poor as the players were on the night.
“On Tuesday, we want to have a real go, we want to make it possible.”
Wenger’s Arsenal know no other way.
Arsenal: Gibbs (doubt – groin/calf), Rosicky (groin), Benayoun (illness), Arteta (head), Mertesacker (ankle), Wilshere (ankle), Squillaci (groin), Coquelin (hamstring), Ramsey (ankle), Santos (ankle), Diaby (hamstring).
Milan: Pato (thigh), Seedorf (thigh), Boateng (thigh), Merkel (knee), Aquilani (ankle).
Arsenal are unbeaten in 13 home games in the Champions League. Manchester United’s victory in the 2008/09 semi-final is their only defeat in 42 European fixtures in North London.
No Italian team has directly eliminated Arsenal from a mainstream European competition – a run of seven two-legged ties, one final (Milan did beat the Club over two legs in the Super Cup of 1995).
Milan drew all three away fixtures in Group H this season.
Milan have the best away record in Serie A with nine wins out of 14 trips. They have been victorious in seven in 12 at the San Siro.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored in all his Champions League appearances this season.Copyright 2013 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 6 Mar 2012