So near but so far: Arsenal’s miracle men just fall short against Milan
Champions League: Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0 (Agg: 3-4)
It was mission impossible that suddenly became mission probable, but after a blistering first half Arsenal ran out of steam and exited the Champions League to an ultimately resilient Milan.
The mountainous task of overturning a 4-0 deficit looked well within the Gunners’ grasp when first-half goals from Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky and Robin van Persie had the seven times European Cup winners shaking in their illustrious boots.
But Arsene Wenger’s side could not maintain that tempo after the break and a fourth goal and unprecedented Champions League comeback proved beyond them.
It could have been different, with Van Persie missing one glorious chance to level it up on aggregate, but in truth Milan should really have made the game safe with a string of second-half chances of their own.
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But Arsenal could exit with their heads held high and their reputation in the European game reinstated after that humbling display in San Siro three weeks earlier.
The gulf in quality that night had looked immense, but the roles were reversed right from the off at the Emirates as Wenger, who had sweated over the fitness of Rosicky beforehand, opted to play the Czech international central midfield alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and just in front of Alex Song.
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That left a forward trio of Gervinho, Theo Walcott and Van Persie to try and achieve the impossible and reduce the Italian champions to rubble.
The Emirates was divided into realists and fantasists before kick-off but the optimistic group were granted the statrt they wanted when Arsenal reduced the gaping deficit after just five minutes.
Milan had already conceded a couple of corners when Oxlade-Chamberlain swung one in from the Arsenal left and found Koscielny entirely unmarked to nod past an exposed Christian Abbiati. That would do nicely for starters.
Milan rocked, but only briefly. Mark van Bommel, already booked early on, used all his combative experience in the centre to slow the game down, blatantly diving to get Bacary Sagna booked and taking the sting out of the game momentarily.
Kieran Gibbs was also booked and Arsenal could have had a second only for Van Persie and Rosicky to overcomplicate matters when they held the numerical advantage.
That miss was forgotten, and belief really started to grow, when Arsenal scored their second on 26 minutes. Walcott was the creator this time, jinking down the right flank and crossing into the six-yard box where Thiago Silva made a complete hash of his clearance, finding only Rosicky on the edge of the box who fired a low shot past Abbiati.
That was enough to get the most cynical in the Emirates stands believing, and Milan were suddenly rudderless, Van Bommel desperately trying to exert some kind of influence as Alex Song and, in particular, the resurgent Rosicky, dominated possession.
Milan did not know whether to fight fire with fire and attack or get back in their trenches and hope that the unthinkable couldn’t happen. But they looked fragile at the back with the left-back Djamel Mesbah looking shaky whenever Walcott received the ball, mesmerised by the pace of the England winger.
He clattered into Walcott 10 minutes before the break, a challenge which appeared to leave the Arsenal man winded.
However that precipitated a brief foray out on the right for Oxlade-Chamberlain, and it brought Arsenal their next goal.
The teenager rampaged inside Mesbah, and was brought down by a combination of the full-back and Antonio Nocerino. Referee Damir Skomina took an age before making his decision but eventually pointed to the penalty spot.
Van Persie, quiet until that moment, needed no second invitation, rifling his spot-kick high into the Milan net to make it 3-0. It was impossible not to think Arsenal had a chance now.
Milan then had a gilt-edged chance to redress the balance just before the break when Stephan El Shaarawy burst clear but fired a tame shot wide of the post as Wojciech Szczesny raced out to narrow the angle.
It was hard to know what either manager would have said at the break. Wenger could not have dreamed the deficit would be so reduced after 45 minutes, yet his team still needed to score twice to go through.
Milan’s Massimiliano Allegri must have contained the urge to berate his players for such a poor first-half showing and instilled the need for a performance expected of Italian champions in the second half.
Immediately Milan looked more purposeful and Szczesny had to be alert to hare off his line and block bravely at the feet of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Milan’s totemic striker, who was starting to see more of the ball.
Szczesny almost presented Ibrahimovic with a game-changing goal after a dreadful clearance, but the big Swede dragged his shot wide of the gaping net from 30 yards just past the hour mark.
By then Arsenal, and Van Persie of all people, had just missed a chance to level it up at 4-4 on aggregate, for some reason trying to dink a rebound in after Abbiati had brilliantly saved Gervinho’s deflected shot.
Arsenal were looking tired now, the exertions of Anfield starting to take their toll, and some questionable refereeing decisions not helping.
Wenger was short of options on the bench but had to make a change as Oxlade-Chamberlain was either injured or had run himself into the ground. The latter was certainly possible and Marouane Chamakh came on in his place with 15 minutes to go.
Moments later, Milan had such a glorious chance to relieve the pressure and leave Arsenal needing six when Nocerino arrived at the far post to tap home from no more than five yards. But somehow he stubbed his shot and allowed Szczesny to save. It was the kind of moment that made Arsenal fans believe all over again that this could be their night. Like the 2005 final against Liverpool, Milan seemed incapable of finishing the job.
But they were getting regular chances now, clear sights of goal as an exhausted Arsenal failed to track back. Walcott seemed to cramp up and had to be replaced by Ju-Young Park.
However the Gunners did not get a sight of goal in the closing moments and sending on Park and Chamakh in the end probably summed up just how meagre Arsenal’s attacking resources are at the moment.
But this was not a night to chide the Gunners. They put up a brave, at times heroic display to come within a whisker of one of the most unlikely results ever. Europe will have noticed and will want to welcome them back next season. Making sure that happens is now Arsenal’s only task over 11 remaining Premier League games.
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Rosicky, Song, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Chamakh, 75) Walcott (Park, 83), van Persie, Gervinho.
Subs not used: Fabianski, Djourou, Jenkinson, Miquel, Ozyakup.
Booked: Sagna, Gibbs, Song
AC Milan: Abbiati, Abate, Mexes, Thiago Silva, Mesbah, Nocerino, Van Bommel, Emanuelson, Ibrahimovic, Robinho, El Shaarawy (Aquilani, 71).
Subs not used: Amelia, Zambrotta, Bonera, Ganz, Yepes, Roma.
Booked: Van Bommel, Nocerino.
Referee: Damir Skomina (Slovenia)