As the half-time whistle blew, Laurent Koscielny slumped down with his hand on his knees, in his mind still chasing the loose ball with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Tomáš Rosický ruffled his hair and looked around; all his team-mates were doing the same and all telepathically asking the same question: “is this really happening? Are we actually going to do this?” The truth probably lay in their reactions, frantically searching for their next breath. They had just made the improbable possible – heck, they even looked favourites to win the tie now – but they had given so much and expended so much energy in one half. At 45 minutes, the distance covered count read Arsenal 56756 metres, Milan 52803 metres. (In comparison, Milan ran 55km at the San Siro and Arsenal 53km). They were also so clinical, so calculated that they couldn’t keep this up in the second-half. Arsenal’s statistics read like a vector graphic: 5 shots, 4 on target, 3 goals, 2 cards, 1 half.
Yet, whatever happened in the second-half, there was a feeling this would still be the defining match of The Emirates Stadium. In an age where football is becoming more business-like, fans are finding it ever difficult to relate to the men on the pitch. Tickets were given up even before kick-off but the true fans remained. They sung and encouraged the players and the players in turn, delivered a passionate performance, chasing every ball and crucially playing with a calm head too to, not only go in at half-time 3-0 in front, but having not conceded also. The platform was in place for a momentous evening.
As it was, Milan came out in the second-half and showed all their continental nous, keeping the ball for lengthy periods and as Arsenal tired, constantly broke up any momentum that was created. They gave Arsenal one real chance in the second-half and that fell to Robin van Persie who, with the goalkeeper in front of him, tried to lift it over him. Christian Abbiati lifted up his hand and stopped it going in. That was on 60 minutes and while Milan had a few of better opportunities – Stephan El Shaaraway shooting wide just before half-time, Zlatan Ibrahimovic gifted a chance and Antonio Nocerino missing an open goal – those missed chances didn’t even themselves out with van Persie’s. Arsenal were looking for a breather and that goal would have provided them that respite to drop deep. Instead, The Gunners had to plough on for a fourth; Arsène Wenger threw on all his strikers in an attempt to salvage extra-time while Alex Song, who tried to do everything himself in the first-half, was forced to do everything himself in the second as his partner in crime, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain succumbed to injury.
In the end, Arsenal lacked sufficient energy and the creativity to pull out the great escape. At the final whistle, Laurent Koscielny slumped down with his hand on his knees, Tomáš Rosický ruffled his hair and eventually dropped to the ground. Robin van Persie looked around in disbelief but thanked the supporters in believing anyway. And Wenger went on his customary rant at the referee chasing the metaphoric light down the tunnel. (Sky Italia’s pitchside reporter actually reported that the referee ran off down the tunnel shouting “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” at Wenger!)
For Arsenal, it had started so well but petered into the game that many had predicted beforehand. In the first-half, Arsenal gave a fine demonstration of their attacking capabilties, pressing Milan up the pitch and then breaking with devastating speed. The left-back, Djamel Mesbah, had an uncomfortable evening as everything came down his side while Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain typified Arsenal’s maturity with a cool-headed display and passed the ball with conviction. Indeed, the injury to Oxlade-Chamberlain early in the second-half probably ended Arsenal’s chances of a fightback as he was disciplined and excellent positionally, allowing Song to get forward and break up the play but suddenly, BAM! he went on a wonderful run to win Arsenal a penalty. In that moment, he showed Arsenal just why they have missed Jack Wilshere, with Wenger telling Sky Italia: “We should have put more drive and intensity in the 2nd half, but our legs went because we played so hard in the 1st half.”
Even if the result wasn’t ultimately satisfactory, the performance was as the team answered all the questions that was asked of them before the game. Most pleasing was Arsenal’s defensive organisation which was superb throughout considering they had to “go for it.” In particular, Laurent Koscielny rose to the occasion once again in a big game but they looked like a unit once more; the nine offsides they won was an indictment of their cohesion. But there were still some questions left to answer after the win; does this team need to be unshackled and be forced into taking creative risks to play at it’s best? And considering how difficult that is to sustain as shown by the second-half, it’s not a reasonable request to expect them to play like this all the time. Of course, the core theme of the game is what they should take as the reference point for the rest of the season; the togetherness, cohesion, the conviction in attack and the perfect execution of the game plan – and this was probably the first game in the season that Robin van Persie wasn’t required to be at his best. And looking at it from a universalistic point of view, this team has actually remained very consistent throughout this season if not spectacular although it needs a couple of creative players if it wants to play as the manager wants to. Wenger was about to introduce rookie, Oguzhan Ozyakup, to regain some control but as he waited for Oxlade-Chamberlain to shake off his knock, it became too late and he was forced to throw another striker on. The balance was lost as soon as Oxlade-Chamberlain felt the effects of the flu he was suffering on the eve of the game.
Andrey Arshavin might have made a difference but it must be remembered, that he made an ultimately selfish decision to leave. Now the irony is, his form will be under more scrutiny in front of his native people’s eyes in Russia. The other irony for Arsenal was that Robin van Persie, so often making the habit of scoring the easy way this season, opted for the chip. Abbiati read it and pulled off the save to stop Arsenal completing the great escape. Nevertheless, the image may serve as a symbolic moment of this team’s potential; the audacity and character to try something special even in the most unlikliest of moments. And for that, there is a need to recognise something exceptional. This team has it.