Straight from the dark heart of Italy
Winning a European tie by a goal over two legs has long been the stable of Italian clubs. But when it's achieved after holding a 4-0 advantage from the first, then it's certainly not living up the best traditions of Serie A sides: closing up shop and playing out the dullest of goalless draws.
AC Milan are no ordinary Italian side. Having all but put the matter beyond doubt at the San Siro without conceding a goal, their decision to go to Arsenal with a trident attack had been questioned by many back home.
However, Massimiliano Allegri is in his job because he follows the club mandate etched into every coach’s mind by president Silvio Berlusconi: Milan always line up to attack and entertain.
The Gunners’ tormentors from a fortnight ago, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho, were joined up front by inexperienced Stephan El Shaarawy on his Champions League debut – but apart from the young striker and winger-turned-left-back Djamel Mesbah, the rest of the team had plenty of European big-match experience.
We can confidently assume that Berlusconi, or anyone anybody else with Rossoneri leanings for that matter, failed to enjoy the first half at the Emirates Stadium, where Arsenal not only restored some much-needed pride but scored three unanswered goals to set up what looked likely to be a grandstand second period.
However, to misquote an old Italian saying of knowing when to put the wine bottle down, Milan sobered up during break when it became clear that they were close to embarrassing themselves by crashing out of the competition in a style they had managed before.
Back in 2004 they had also scored four at home to Deportivo La Coruna, but tellingly conceded one; in the return leg, Carlo Ancelotti’s men – Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and all – let in four but could not find the vital away goal.
Just when they thought such a capitulation would never happen again, along came that evening in Istanbul where they gave up a 3-0 lead against Liverpool – so Milan have form of throwing it away in the one-off occasion.
An early goal in the Gunners net was what was needed, but instead Thiago Silva & Co. conceded one after six minutes – and then a second and a third. Even so, they could have gone into the dressing room with at least one away goal if El Shaarawy had a cooler head when faced with a presentable chance.
The second half was much more in keeping with a team with genuine hopes of making the latter stages, if not the final, with the midfield closing space up and then spreading the ball wide to good effect.
In fact, Milan probably had the better chances in the second 45 minutes – apart from one moment when Christian Abbiati stuck up an arm to deny Robin van Persie from right in front of the goal. His full-length save from the same player in the first leg was wonderful, but this time his intervention was vital.
Soon after, Antonio Nocerino missed an open goal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was far below his majestic best but still better than most, fired wide when presented with the ball just outside the area and the goalkeeper out of position.
There's no doubt that the events of the first leg had a bearing on how the players approached the return, but at least they can come back down to earth again and understand that this is a team that will need a very a favourable draw to get anywhere near Munich come May.
They could end up facing either Napoli or city rivals Inter, which would take us back to the tensions of previous one-country meetings, but at least there would be few surprises. Alternatively, they could run into the Spanish – and run the risk of being carved open, as they were last night.
It was a sobering experience for Allegri and maybe in the future he won't want his side to have a seemingly unassailable lead going into a second leg.
It had all the makings of Napoli’s greatest evening in European football. They hoped the party would
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