AC Milan survived an
almighty scare against a rejuvenated Arsenal to scrape into the
Champions League quarter-finals 4-3 on aggregate on Tuesday
despite being thrashed 3-0 by the London side who almost pulled
off mission impossible.
Milan's 4-0 win in the San Siro left Arsenal with a five
percent chance of survival, according to manager Arsene Wenger,
but his team struck three times in a barnstorming first half to
threaten the greatest of European Cup escapes.
The Serie A champions were shocking in the first half as
goals from Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky and a Robin van
Persie penalty meant their lead all but evaporated.
Milan, who have won the trophy seven times, came to their
senses after the break to win the last 16 tie but their fans,
aware of a similar second-leg collapse against Deportivo Coruna
in 2004, had their nerves shredded on a night of raw tension.
Van Persie, who scored a superb late winner against
Liverpool last weekend, botched a glorious chance to level the
tie early in the second half when he scooped an effort straight
into the arms of Christian Abbiati and Arsenal ran out of steam.
Milan could have made it a more comfortable night but Zlatan
Ibrahimovic and Antonio Nocerino were guilty of spurning the
chances to give their side some breathing space.
"Right now, although we lost I am very happy," Milan coach
Massimiliano Allegri told reporters. "I am delighted we've
qualified and that was the main objective, although we have to
play better than that."
It was all rather an anti-climax in the end for the home
side who had Milan on the ropes by half-time, leaving Wenger to
rue the damage done in the away leg last month.
"We are disappointed because we touched qualification, we
had the chances, and although we didn't do it, we were very
close," he told reporters.
"We restored some pride after the first tie but
unfortunately we are out. We had the chances but we paid the
price for the first game.
"We suffered a lot physically in the second half but the
players gave a faultless performance."
Premier League victories, including a 5-2 defeat of
Tottenham Hotspur from 2-0 down and another comeback in a 2-1
win at Liverpool on Saturday, had fuelled belief that all might
not be lost against the Italian aristocrats.
Milan made a sluggish start, inviting Arsenal forward, and
it was clear they were in for a rough ride when Koscielny peeled
away from his marker to meet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's
inswinging corner with a thumping header past Abbiati to raise
the volume in the stadium.
Allegri packed his Milan side with attacking menace in the
shape of Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy, hoping to
snatch the away goal that would have proved fatal for the
Gunners, but they hardly got a kick as a red tide swept in the
Van Persie twice tested Abbiati, forcing one flying save,
before Arsenal's second goal arrived after 26 minutes.
Theo Walcott sped down the right and his low cross was only
half cleared by Thiago Silva straight to the lurking Czech
Rosicky who steered a precise shot inside the near post.
Milan were desperately trying to clear their heads by
keeping the ball but they appeared dazed as Arsenal kept raiding
forward with Oxlade-Chamberlain causing trouble with his pace
and strength in midfield.
Any hope Milan had of reaching half-time with at least half
of their advantage intact vanished two minutes before the break
when Oxlade-Chamberlain burst into the box only to become the
meat in the sandwich of Djamel Mesbah and Nocerino.
Referee Damir Skomina took ages to point to the spot but,
when he did, Van Persie was the calmest man in the stadium,
firing the penalty high past Abbiati.
El Shaarawy should have scored for Milan seconds before
half-time but showed no composure when shooting wide and Arsenal
walked off to a standing ovation.
The could never find the same tempo after the break,
however, as Milan finally showed some attacking intent.
After Abbiati made a crucial double save from Gervinho's
deflected shot and Van Persie's follow-up, the home side began
to run out of steam.
A poor clearance from Wojciech Szczesny went straight to
Ibrahimovic and the Swede was far too casual as he failed to hit
the target with Arsenal's Polish keeper stranded out of his
Milan were finding plenty of space as Arsenal committed
players forward and Nocerino had a gilt-edged chance to kill off
the home side but shot straight at Szczesny with the goal open
after a low cross reached him at the back post.
The misses did not prove crucial, however, and Milan
survived to fight another day, although it was mighty close.
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