After a triumphant year 2007 in which the Rossoneri conquered successively the UEFA Champions League, European Super Cup, and FIFA Club World Cup, the Red & Black king was forced to abdicate his throne tonight. The mighty Gunners of Arsenal, lead by the brilliance of their talisman player Cesc Fabregas, felt a bit of emotion for playing inside the Italian ‘Temple of Football’, a Giuseppe Meazza stadium covered in colours and roaming with chants of the AC Milan supporters. However, once they stuck their heads out of the hole, Wenger’s men began suffocating their prey with an asphyxiating domination in ball possession, and eventually brought Il Diavolo Rossonero down to his knees. Tuesday night marks the end of an era for AC Milan.
With the return of Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, and Alessandro Nesta (all rested in the domestic league this week-end), Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti was hoping to recreate the epic night of the Milan vs. Man Utd match a year ago. The only thing missing compared to the April 2007 Champions League Semi-Final was the presence of Clarence Seedorf, a factor which may well have proven to be determining tonight, such was the lack of inspiration exhibited by the Milan midfield. Up front, Ancelotti gave a full vote of confidence to the experience of Filippo Inzaghi (one with a very hefty European goalscoring loot) and the brilliance of wonderboy Alexandre Pato, thus shifting from his usual 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree formation. Meanwhile, Arsène Wenger received good news this week-end regarding the presence of Robin van Persie amongst his ranks, but still chose not the risk the Dutch player from the start, instead relying on lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor, supported by Alexander Hleb.
As the match kicked off, the Belarus midfielder was precisely the first to begin the hostilities, with a 7th minute effort wide of the mark. Really nothing to worry Milan and their big Aussie keeper Zeljko Kalac; instead the Rossoneri immediately replied with a few shots of their own, considerably closer to the target. First Pato forced the Gunners’ backline to deflect a hard left-footed effort to safety, then on the ensuing corner-kick, Fabregas saved Almunia by clearing Paolo Maldini’s header off the line. Shivers for Wenger!
The Rossoneri were pressing high up, trying to force their opponents to a mistake, but Arsenal kept their cool and continued to play their own style of football, cautiously. In minute 13, a good set-up from Adebayor to Abou Diaby gave the French midfielder a good one-time chance from outside the box (wide), then just a minute later it was Inzaghi‘s turn to collect a cross from Maldini and attempt a finish (saved by Almunia).
The match was getting vibrant, possession was shifting quickly but slightly to the advantage of the home team. The Rossoneri were evidently trying to avoid the right wing (covered by the attentive Diaby), instead focusing on the left with deft touches and timely run overlaps. Precisely from the left wing came AC Milan’s best opportunity of the match: in minute 19 a bit of Kaká magic gave the Brazilian playmaker some space, and allowed him to cross a perfect ball to Pato on the opposite wing. Unfortunately for Milan instead of a powerful finish, the ex-Porto Alegre youngster attempted a speculative chipped shot which was safely neutralized by Almunia, and a very good chance went begging.
A minute later, Inzaghi almost obtained another chance on net, but Diaby’s timely tackle saved the house for Arsenal. Then once again, Kaká put a left-footed effort narrowly wide of Almunia’s right post: Milan were really piling on the pressure, and Arsenal were suffering… but not for long. The greater fitness and stronger physique of the Gunners eventually allowed them to get loose of the Rossoneri clutch, and produce a few chances of their own. The two biggest ones worth noting: an Adebayor inswinging effort swiftly parried over the bar by Kalac (minute 28), and the crossbar hit by Fabregas as he received a pass once again from Adebayor (minute 34). Before then, the referee had (erronously) booked Hleb for diving in what would otherwise have been a very good free-kick chance for the visitors.
The half thus ended on a scoreless draw, but evidently Milan were having a really tough time containing their opponents’ initiatives. In fact, the good Rossoneri plays of the first 20-30 minutes were nowhere to be seen, and the the team progressively stepped further and further down their own end, as even Pirlo and Kaká were forced to provide frequent bits of defensive effort.
After the break, Wenger’s boys resumed the second half just the same way they had concluded the first: attacking without inhibition, occupying every part of the field as if tonight’s venue wasn’t called San Siro but Emirates Stadium. Just 3 minutes after the restart, Philippe Senderos had a golden chance to put his team in the lead following a corner-kick, but awkwardly blasted his close-range effort directly into the hands of the keeper. 3 minutes later, it was Eboué’s turn to send shivers down Ancelotti’s spine and fire an effort narrowly wide of the right post. Milan were sweating heavy.
Pirlo attempted to revitalize his teammates by executing one of his trademark specialties: the free-kick. His 30m effort in minute 54 forced Almunia to deflect the ball into corner, but it was just a small highlight in an otherwise suffocating domination by the Arsenal players. Fortunately, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini (helped by always present Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini) were playing for two men, trying to patch up every leak and keeping the Arsenal hordes at bay.
In minute 69, Ancelotti tried to play the Alberto Gilardino card, hoping for a miracle. Wenger replied by inserting Theo Walcott for Eboué. 5 minutes later, a glimmer of light shone through San Siro when Pato eluded the challenge of Clichy, and fired a good effort with his left from outside the box, narrowly wide of the post. Everyone saw the ball had been deflected into corner, that is everyone excluding the referee. Play continued.
Finally, the period of the last 10 minutes arrived: the time when even a slight error can be fatal, and when every succesfull tackle is worth gold. Gold to the Rossoneri, ready to take this game into extra time hoping for a change of momentum. Alas, Cesc Fabregas did not give them such a luxury: in minute 84, the young Spaniard went by Gattuso in the middle of the field, and from nearly 30 yards fired a powerful shot which, as it bounced, eluded the vigilance of Kalac and ended its way into the bottom-left corner. Heartbreak for AC Milan, ecstasy for the Gunners. 1-0 Arsenal
Milan now had to score twice to overcome the away goal handicap. Their players had lost faith, the European adventure was coming to an end. The visitors added insult to injury when Walcott broke loose on the right wing, and centered a perfect ball for the arriving Adebayor on the far post. 2-0 Arsenal, game, set, match, Gunners (deservedly) through to the Quarter-Finals. No doubt we will see AC Milan in next year’s competition, hungry as ever, but only if they can win their battle for 4th-spot in the Serie A. Fiorentina might have something so say against that.
|GOALSCORERS: 84’ Fabregas (A), 92’ Adebayor (A)|
|MILAN (4-3-1-2): Kalac – Oddo, Nesta, Kaladze, Maldini – Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini – Kaká, Inzaghi (69’ Gilardino), Pato. (bench: Fiori, Simic, Bonera, Favalli, Emerson, Gourcuff). Coach: Ancelotti.|
|ARSENAL (4-4-1-1): Almunia – Sagna, Senderos, Gallas, Clichy – Eboué (71’ Walcott), Flamini, Fabregas, Diaby – Hleb (90’ Gilberto) – Adebayor. (bench: Lehmann, Hoyte, Silva, Denilson, van Persie, Bendtner). Coach: Wenger.|