Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan: So close and yet so far for heroic Gunners
Published 21:46 06/03/12 By John Cross
It ended in heartbreak after glorious failure.
Arsenal's players stood on the pitch after the final whistle blew with their heads in their hands in utter despair after going so close to the greatest fight back in Champions League history.
For 45 glorious minutes at the Emirates, Arsenal dared to believe and overwhelmed mighty Milan with a breathtaking display full of never-say-die spirit, determination and glory.
They made mission impossible look possible with a performance which made Arsenal's players heroes rather than nearly men.
You can forgive them for feeling devastated because they pushed mighty Milan to the limit and the seven-time European Cup winners were rocking.
Arsenal went in at half time 3-0 up, believing they could do it with the momentum firmly behind them and on the verge of a footballing miracle.
Robin van Persie came within a whisker of a magical fourth goal but, ultimately, Arsenal ran out of steam, the dream died and they crashed out of Europe.
But after the humiliation of the San Siro when even the most diehard Arsenal fans were questioning Arsene Wenger, this restored the belief and patched up the battered pride.
Wenger has rarely been so critical of his players as after the four goal battering in Milan but they have responded with great wins over Tottenham, Liverpool and now AC Milan.
Ultimately, it was not enough to repair the damage but the reaction after the San Siro has shown that Arsenal still believe in Wenger and can still reach incredible heights.
Wenger had given his side only a five per cent chance of pulling off a fight back and yet they were so close to upsetting the odds.
Even the most blinkered fans thought Wenger was using mind games to keep the tie alive and yet slowly but surely with each goal the volume was turned up and suddenly they were within a whisker.
It was partly down to Milan not knowing whether to stick or twist with their four goal lead and the indecision just invited Arsenal onto the Serie A leaders.
Arsenal took just seven minutes to breach the Milan defence as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's corner found Laurent Koscielny unmarked at the near post and the French defender headed powerfully home.
Still there was an air of scepticism in the Emirates rather than belief but it also provided hope. Arsenal, with an attack minded line-up, kept pushing forward and Milan's nerves saw them surrender more and more ground.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, at just 18, was one of many heroes and yet it was veteran Tomas Rosicky, nicknamed Little Mozart, who conducted the midfield and ran the game.
Slovenian referee Damir Skomina did his best to try and steal the show with an over zealous display as he dished out yellow cards and stopped play far too often.
But it did not stop Arsenal as they grabbed a second after 26 minutes. Theo Walcott's cross was half cleared by Thiago Silva, the ball came out to Rosicky and he drilled a low shot past Milan keeper Christian Abbiati.
Still there were looks of doubt and disbelief. But those soon changed to wild celebration as Arsenal made it three before half time.
Oxlade-Chamberlain raced forward from midfield, broke into the penalty box and was sandwiched between Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino. It left Skomina little option but to award a penalty.
Van Persie, despite Milan's best attempts to delay the spot kick with gamesmanship, stepped up and blasted into the top corner.
Suddenly the volume reached fever pitch and Arsenal dared to dream. If only the half time break had not halted the momentum and given Milan breathing space.
AC Milan came out with a new resolve while Arsenal seemed caught between whether to stick or twist. It quickly became a game of Russian roulette as Arsenal pushed forward and Milan threatened on the break.
Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny produced several brilliant saves as his rearguard action thwarted Milan time after time.
Wenger's men brilliant first half display took its toll as Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain had to be replaced and they just ran out of steam.
Arsenal's best chance came in the 59th minute when Gervinho's shot was deflected by Philippe Mexes, Abbiati saved with his leg and van Persie tried a delicate chip when power would have been better and the Milan keeper recovered to save.
Milan midfielder Antonio Nocerino missed a sitter as the game swung from end to end but Arsenal just could not complete the fairytale.
Ultimately, it finished in failure. But heroic failure at that. Arsenal's recent revival should be buoyed by last night. They finished as nearly men but heroes all the same.