By Richard Clarke at the San Siro Arsenal will have to produce a mighty comeback against Milan on March 6 if they are to reach the Champions League quarter-finals. Arsène Wenger’s side went down 4-0 at the San Siro on Wednesday evening in the Knockout Round first leg. This stadium has played host to a couple of incredible victories for Arsenal Football Club. This, however, was the polar opposite. Milan were the better team on the night and deserved their win – only the margin can be in dispute. Kevin-Prince Boateng’s thunderous effort gave them the lead on the quarter-hour and Robinho added a brace either side of the interval to put the game, if not the tie, to bed. Zlatan Ibrahimovic added a fourth from a contentious penalty 11 minutes from time. It was a body blow. Arsenal had their moments and Christian Abbiati made two fine saves from Robin van Persie. However, the visitors could not find that crucial away goal. This was a sombre night for Wenger’s men and an entirely unfitting finale for Thierry Henry’s brief sojourn. The Frenchman will be about to start his MLS campaign by the time the second leg comes around.The self-confessed Arsenal fan will surely be hoping and praying that his old side can pull off something incredible.
Before kick-off, Wenger’s teamsheet had made interesting reading. After the injury to Per Mertesacker at Sunderland, the manager decided to move Thomas Vermaelen into his more familiar role in central defence. Kieran Gibbs filled the left-back berth vacated by the Belgian. It was the Englishman’s first appearance since October 16. The only other change from Saturday saw Aaron Ramsey replace Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Welshman came into central midfield with Tomas Rosicky moving out to the flank. Henry was involved for the last time as an Arsenal player. As usual, the Frenchman began on the bench but the past six weeks had proved how hard it was to keep him out of the limelight. A packed, vibrant San Siro is one of football’s greatest sights. Arsenal had history here – that 5-1 win against Inter in 2003 and the 2-0 victory over tonight’s opponents four years ago. The latter was a second-leg success that clinched the tie. Having won their group, Arsenal knew they had the luxury of a second leg at Emirates Stadium. However, this was still a massive night for Wenger’s side. And their 5,000-strong support was bolstered by Jack Wishere, Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson who travelled out on the morning of the game and would travel back with the team after the game. In the build-up to this tie, Wenger had called on his side to be “audacious” but he also predicted Milan would attack. As a result, the early stages were remarkably open. The Italians had the edge. Clarence Seedorf hit the sidenetting, his only contribution before hobbling off in the 12th minute, and Ignazio Abate saw a deflected shot fly just over. Then Seedorf’s replacement, Urby Emanuelson, sidefooted wide on the quarter-hour. Arsenal had looked promising in the opening seconds when Rosicky hacked an effort wide but it was clear that the hosts had the advantage. And, in the 16th minute, they had the lead too. The build-up was simple but the finish was stunning. Emanuelson chipped Boateng into space down the right-hand channel. The midfielder chested the ball down and, from a narrowing angle, crashed home a thunderous shot that flew in off the underside of the bar. Arsenal had been tentative and Milan had seized the moment. The hosts immediately started the search for a second. Ibrahimovic found Antonio Nocerino in space on the right and his powerful drive flew just over. The Swedish striker then chased down Vermaelen and, fortunately for Arsenal, pushed him over in the area just as he appeared to have won the ball. Laurent Koscielny headed into the hands of Abbiati but the visitors could not sustain pressure. Milan were pestering Arsenal into giving them possession. In the 35th minute, Vermaelen lost the ball to Robinho on the halfway line and only a perfectly-timed challenge by Koscielny stopped a second. However, the wait would be painfully short. Seven minutes from the whistle, Ibrahimovic raced down the left, reached the byline and clipped the ball back for Robinho guide a header into the far post. A minute or so later, the Brazilian’s sweeping cross to the far post looked destined for the head of the swooping Swede. However, Sagna just did enough to scruffily smuggle the ball away from the striker. Matters got worse for Arsenal before the break when Koscielny hobbled off. Johan Djourou was the replacement. On the whistle Milan had two chances to add to their tally – both set up by Ibrahimovic, who had been outstanding so far. First he held off Djourou deep in his own half and curled a long, low pass into the path of Boateng, who blasted wide. Then he weighted a through ball for Luca Antonini, who rolled his shot inches past the far post. It had been a chastening 45 minutes for Wenger’s side but they went into the break knowing an away goal would change the complexion of the tie. You presume that is why Wenger brought Henry at the break. The Frenchman, a replacement for Walcott, went straight up front with Van Persie tucking in behind and Ramsey moving to the right. It was a bold move but the formation had no time to settle before Arsenal conceded again. Four minutes after the restart, Ibrahimovic nudged square pass toward Robinho on the edge of the area. Vermaelen, his marker, slipped over at the crucial moment and Song arrived too late to prevent him firing a third into the corner. Arsenal now needed an away goal – badly. They started push forward and, on the hour, were nearly picked off on the counter. Emmanuelson and Robinho lead the charge after Abbiati punched out Arteta’s corner. But, when the ball found its way to the unmarked Antononi, the midfielder shanked his shot wide. However, overall, Arsenal had been a more attacking force since the break. Ramsey headed over from Van Persie’s corner. Then, in the 65th minute, the visitors fashioned their clearest chance of the game. Song swung in a cross from the right and Henry’s flick looped up for Van Persie to volley. It was destined for the corner but Abbiati managed to tip the ball around the past. The keeper’s fingers were still stinging when Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Gibbs shortly afterwards. Arsenal now went 4-4-2 with Song dropping to centre back and Vermaelen moving to the left again. Fifteen minutes from time, the Belgian's cross was inadvertently headed up for a Van Persie volley by Philippe Mexes. Again the striker could only find Abbiati. Arsenal were now threatening. But Milan had hardly given up their attacking ambitions. Eleven minutes from time, Ibrahimovic tumbled under a challenge from Djourou and referee Victor Kassai pointed to the spot. The Swedish striker found the net from 12 yards. The perspective might have changed slightly if Van Persie’s far-post had sneaked home in the dying minutes but, once again, Abbiati batted the ball away. Szcezsny beat out Emanuelson's fierce shot at the end. That would have been harsh on Arsenal on a night when nothing went right.
Referee: V. Kassai (Hungary)
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