By Richard Clarke
Arsenal went out of the Champions League at Emirates Stadium on Tuesday night - but they went out on their shield.
A storming 3-0 win confirmed their recent revival but was not enough to overturn the lead Milan had established in the last-16 first leg at the San Siro three weeks ago.
Laurent Koscielny ignited the spark with a seventh-minute header and Tomas Rosicky sent smoke rising from Emirates midway through the half. When Robin van Persie fired home a penalty three minutes from the break the stadium was alight.
Unfortunately, Arsenal could not maintain the same heat in the second half. Gervinho and Van Persie both had opportunities for the equaliser but Milan were more robust with Antonio Nocerino twice testing Wojciech Szczesny.
But, remember, a four-goal comeback had been achieved only three times before in the history of European competition.
Arsenal easily won the game. It would have been something truly extraordinary if they had won the tie.
Yet, in defeat, they had more than proved their mettle.
Eleven weary bodies in 11 red-and-white shirts hauled themselves dejectedly from the pitch at full time.
On the strength of this incredible night, they will be back – and stronger for the experience. Arsenal may have lost the tie – but they were far from defeated.
The extent of that 4-0 first leg defeat in Milan made for an unusual feeling before kick-off.
Arsenal had recovered from that first-leg defeat with superb comebacks against Tottenham and Liverpool. But this was a different matter.
A raft of absences hardly helped. Mikel Arteta (head), Yossi Benayoun (sickness) and Abou Diaby (hamstring) had joined the list following the weekend win at Anfield. Wenger admitted that if Tomas Rosicky had not passed a fitness test then he would have switched formation. As it was the Czech international was joined by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre. It was the youngster’s first start inside. Gervinho also came into the team.
Milan’s teamsheet caused a little ripple pre-match as Massimiliano Allegri named two keepers on the bench. The coach was attempting to bolt the back door on this tie.
But the home side proved to be excellent locksmiths at the beginning of the first half.
Within seven minutes they were ahead. Oxlade-Chamberlain fired over a corner from the left and Koscielny wriggled free of his marker to nod home his second goal of the season.
The perfect start.
Soon after, Walcott roared down the right and fed Van Persie. The angle was acute and shot was kicked away by Christian Abbiati. It was a regulation save but it was met with rapture by the home support.
Recent results – and that early goal – had given them every reason to believe.
The first 10 minutes belonged to Arsenal. Van Persie’s pass was inches behind an unmarked Rosicky on the left of the area. Then the Dutchman forced a flying save from Abbiati at his near post.
Milan were menacing on the counter but they could sustain nothing going forward. This game was all about Arsenal at this point.
And the second goal made the dream much more real.
In the 26th minute, Walcott stormed forward and his cutback was lazily cleared to Rosicky by Thiago Silva. The 31-year-old has been rolling back the years in recent weeks and his goal was a case in point.
A less experienced player would have snatched at it. A less technical player would have blasted.
Rosicky passed the ball into the net with composure. It was an understated and yet quality strike - typical of the man.
Emirates Stadium now sensed something special. Arsenal continued to pour forward. The Milan defence creaked under the pressure but did not serve up an opportunity.
They also looked a little more ambitious themselves.
However Arsenal were now fancying their task and, three minutes from half time it got a little easier when Oxlade-Chamberlain was blocked off by Daniel Mesbah as he stormed through and Van Persie slammed home from the spot.
Stunning, stirring stuff.
However there was nearly a sting. In injury time, a sweeping Milan move eventually saw Stephan El Shaarawy pop up on the right of the area unmarked. He fired a shot wide when he should have scored.
Milan had to change something as, that last chance apart, they been toothless. At this rate, Arsenal would pick them off.
The visitors certainly showed endeavour at the start of the second half. If anything Arsenal were now playing on the counter and just before the hour mark they nearly drew level in the tie via that route.
Gervinho deflected shot was kicked away by Abbiati and then the keeper reacted well to clutch Van Persie’s follow-up from point-blank range.
It was massive moment. Especially as Arsenal were starting to come under real pressure.
In the 63rd minute, Wojciech Szczesny tried to find Song with a low clearance into midfield. Ibrahimovic nipped in and fired just wide with the keeper helpless.
The game was in the balance as we reached the midway point of the second half. In itself that was a massive achievement. But Milan had shown much more since the break.
It was understandable. The visitors are leading Serie A right now and Arsenal had played at a leg-sapping tempo in the first half.
With 16 minutes to go, Wenger brought on Marouane Chamakh for Oxlade-Chamberlain. The time had come to gamble.
But in truth, Arsenal were tiring.
Nocerino cut in from the left and Szczesny batted away his near-post drive. From the resulting throw in, Alberto Aquilani cut inside and sent low ball across goal. It was perfect for Nocerino. But his shot was stopped by the foot of Szczesny and the rebound fell into his hands.
A fortunate moment.
In the final few minutes, Walcott limped off and Ju Young Park came on. The formation was now officially 4-2-4 but it seemed to be 4-0-6 at times.
Arsenal tried to rouse themselves for one more assault but the comeback has drained their energy.
The European adventure may be now over but Wenger’s men are back on track.
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN)
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