“Milan Fort Apache” as titled by La Gazzetta dello Sport. Experience, character, determination: those were the Rossoneri’s winning features tonight, because yes, a draw obtained on hostile English territory can be considered a win. Especially since the majority of tonight’s match was dominated by the home team, a relentlessly attacking Arsenal which however lacked concentration and a small bit of luck in their finishing. The European champions can look at the return leg at San Siro with a bit more tranquility.
The biggest surprise of tonight’s starting line-ups was the presence of Alexandre Pato in the Milan ranks. The young Brazilian talent was forced to leave the field in pain, when he injured his ankle vs. Fiorentina in early February. Yet 17 days later here he was, in the Rossoneri starting line-up ready to begin his biggest Champions League adventure yet, relegating veterans like Alberto Gilardino and Pippo Inzaghi to the bench. Zeljko Kalac was another miraculously-healed subject tonight, recuperating from his stubbed fingers earlier this week. As for Arsène Wenger, he decided it was time to put the 193cm of Emmanuel Adebayor (precautiously rested against Manchester in the FA Cup, with not-too-brilliant results) into the mix, supported by Eduardo Silva and Alexander Hleb. Ex-Milan keeper Jens Lehmann would be defending the Gunners’ goal from his former teammates.
Except for the unfortunate early injury of Kolo Touré in minute 6 (replaced by Philippe Senderos), the debut of Arsenal to tonight’s match was quite positive. The Gunners’ playing motor immediately started running at full throttle, with the entire team looking for the dangerous forwards of Adebayor, and Clichy and Sagna never shying away from pushing forward down the wings. Cesc Fabregas was being the usual inspirator to his teammates’ runs behind the defense, something which kept Paolo Maldini and his friends from the Rossoneri backline really on their toes. However, the Italian captain was precisely the one sounding the charge for his team, just to prove a point that AC Milan hadn’t travelled to London simply to watch. Maldini’s header in minute 10 was the first real chance of the game, who up until then had been dominated by the home team.
Except for a few slip-ups shortly before the break, when Mathieu Flamini was allowed twice an attempt at target (firstly following some good dribbling work by Emmanuel Eboué, then due to a passing mistake by Pirlo), the Milan backline had kept danger at bay (Kalac’s activity had been limited to a couple of saves). Things were going to change slightly for the second period, also because Alessandro Nesta (up until then flawless) was forced off due to a muscle injury to the groin: Maldini moved back to the center, Jankulovski (on for Nesta) replaced him on the left wing. This gave the chance to Arsenal to immediately test the newcomer: a great pass by Hleb for Eboué (right on the edge of the box) was driven wide by the Ivory Coast international, then minutes later an Eduardo-Fabregas-Eduardo one-two gave set up the naturalized Croatian for the finish, but it was over Kalac’s crossbar.
Fortunately for Milan, the now-recentered captain Maldini was leaving no room to breathe for Adebayor, forcing Arsenal to look for alternative solutions. On the other end, there was not much trace of the Rossoneri’s offensive presence tonight, Kaká and Pato being largely unproductive in their efforts. It must be said that Milan’s inability to hold the ball in the midfield zone, was creating very few playable balls forward for the goalscorers. The Gunners had time to try their luck once again through Fabregas (central shot saved by Kalac), Eduardo (shot wide), and Bendtner (closed down by Kaladze), before Carlo Ancelotti decided it was time to give Pato a rest and insert Gilardino. The ex-Parma striker immediately gave Milan their second shot on target of the night (twisting header on a corner-kick delivery), but power and angle weren’t enough to worry Lehmann.
The match was now approaching the end, so Arsenal decided to really throw themselves forward in order to obtain a last-minute victory goal. Adebayor and Fabregas put Kalac to work once again, and Bendtner had a great close-range opportunity as he received a left-wing assist from Hleb, but his one-time finish was narrowly wide off AC Milan’s top corner!! With 1 minute left, Theo Walcott came on for Eboué and provided the assist for Arsenal’s golden second-half chance: getting rid of his marker on the right-wing, the English youngster calibrated a perfect cross for Adebayor onto the 2nd post, who only needed to apply the finish with an empty net! Instead, the Togolese striker’s header clattered the crossbar and rebounded back in play, eventually being cleared by the Milan defense.
A real head-grabbing moment for Gunners fans, the last of tonight’s show at Emirates stadium. Wenger’s team will have to try harder in San Siro in two weeks, while Ancelotti’s boys can be satisfied of the draw they obtained away from home.
|ARSENAL (4-3-2-1): Lehmann – Sagna, Touré (7’ Senderos), Gallas, Clichy – Eboué (89’ Walcott), Fabregas, Flamini – Hleb, Eduardo (74’ Bendtner) – Adebayor. (bench: Fabianski, Gilberto, Hoyte, Denilson). Coach: Wenger.|
|MILAN (4-3-2-1): Kalac – Oddo, Nesta (50’ Jankulovski), Kaladze, Maldini – Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini – Seedorf (86’ Emerson), Kaká – Pato (77’ Gilardino). (bench: Fiori, Bonera, Brocchi, Inzaghi). Coach: Ancelotti.|