Champions League - Milan crush Arsenal
Wed, 15 Feb 21:45:00 2012
Milan thrashed a hapless Arsenal side 4-0 in the first leg of their Champions League last-16 clash at the San Siro, giving Thierry Henry a muted send-off in his last game before returning to New York.
Former Tottenham midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng opened the scoring with a brilliant finish on the quarter-hour, with ex-Manchester City forward Robinho adding a brace either side of half-time as players who flopped in England came back to haunt the Gunners.
Man-of-the-match Zlatan Ibrahimovic won and converted a penalty as the Swede continued his run of scoring in every Champions League match he has played this season.
Henry came on at half-time ahead of his return to MLS but he had a limited impact as he and Robin van Persie were starved of the ball by a midfield that passed like a Sunday team at times.
While the hosts played well going forward, Arsenal sunk without a trace, Arsene Wenger’s slightly eccentric team selection punished by a Rossoneri side missing a host of injured players.
Maximiliano Allegri’s Serie A leaders had gone out of European competition to English sides at the last three times of asking, while talismanic forward Ibrahimovic has historically been accused of going missing in the big games, particularly against Premier League opposition.
But on a chilly night in Italy both these ghosts were laid to rest in emphatic style, as Arsenal - missing the injured Per Mertesacker - fell apart in defence and froze in attack.
Ibra - who despite his alleged Anglophobia has scored against Arsenal for Barcelona - pulled the strings, getting an assist and a goal in the process.
There is no great shame in losing to the best side in Italy, but Arsenal were never at the races, and Milan - despite the absences of Gennaro Gattuso, Alberto Aquilani, Mathieu Flamini and Antonio Cassano - exploited it to full effect.
Wenger curiously elected to play with no left-winger, dropping exciting youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the bench and utilising a more advanced Kieran Gibbs as an attacking left-back, the England defender surprisingly selected despite four months out injured.
That move shunted Thomas Vermaelen into his usual centre-back position, a slot vacated by the injured Mertesacker, whose presence was sorely missed after overcoming initial teething problems at Arsenal.
The defensive hesitance was clear for Arsenal, particularly with the Belgian, who was caught out of position on a number of occasions but spared by Laurent Koscielny.
Koscielny was at partly fault when Milan took the lead, although it was some finish from Boateng. A poor kick from Wojciech Szczesny was sent back upfield by Antonio Nocerino, whose long ball dropped over the shoulder of the Ghana midfielder: he took it on his chest and, with the Frenchman floundering, knocked a fabulous shot into the roof of the net.
Nocerino, an all-action figure cutting inside from the right, fizzed a spectacular effort of his own inches over, while Szczesny had to be alert after Vermaelen let Ibrahimovic past him.
Vermaelen slipped another time but was bailed out by Koscienly before Robinho could pounce, but Milan had their second soon afterwards.
In addition to the uncertainty at the back, the attempt to narrow the midfield was disastrous as Arsenal had minimal possession while Ibrahmovic simply dropped deeper, pulling the strings as a playmaker-forward.
The Swede was having a field day and he exploited some poor defending from Bacary Sagna to lollop in down the left.
Arsenal felt he was offside but there was no excuse for Sagna’s failure to chase down a man to whom he would normally beat in any foot-race: Ibra took advantage of the Frenchman’s sluggishness to flick a sweet left-foot cross that the unmarked Robinho cleverly met with an improvised header inside the bottom right.
Much will be made of Arsenal’s poor defending but, as if to highlight a collective malaise, that counter attack started when Tomas Rosicky gave the ball away with a terrible pass when he had men over.
The half had seven minutes remaining and it seemed Milan would run riot: however, Arsenal managed to keep the scoreline respectable as - after Koscielny came off injured - replacement Johan Djourou left Ibra-sized gaps at the back, his Swiss defender’s blushes spared by Boateng’s poor finish and a brave stop from Szczesny on Antonini.
Wenger acted by introducing Henry at half-time but, despite a promising start, there would be no repeat of his Sunderland heroics, the 34-year-old helpless as Robinho smashed home a second to make it 3-0: whereas the shaky Vermaelen had previously avoided punishment for his errors, this time his slip gave the Brazilian a sight of goal that he took with aplomb, drilling in a fine low strike that Szczesny was nowhere near.
Arsenal needed something, just an away goal to take the edge off defeat and give them a hint of a comeback at the Emirates.
But they offered close to nothing, their midfield barely noticeable as Rosicky, Mikel Arteta and a poor Aaron Ramsey were unable to create anything, the latter particularly wasteful with his attempts at long-range passing.
And when a half-chance did come Henry was the creator, his cool flick landing over the shoulder of Van Persie, whose excellent volley was equalled by a top save from Christian Abbiati.
Finally Oxlade-Chamberlain was brought on but, with three quarters of the match gone and the score at 3-0, it was too little too late.
Milan got a deserved fourth when Ibrahimovic was finally rewarded for his masterful performance, ghosting past the hapless Djourou who hauled him down clumsily: the former Juventus, Barcelona and Inter forward drilled a low penalty past the dive of Szczesny to complete the rout.
Arsenal tried in vain to get an away goal on the board, Van Persie’s header drawing a decent stop from Abbiati, but Milan could and should have added to the rout as substitute Alexandre Pato was wasteful when put through twice late on.
Arsenal have little hope of progress, short of a miracle and outright capitulation by Milan in three weeks' time: the real question is whether they can pick themselves up in time for the weekend’s FA Cup fixture at Sunderland, or if they will collapse after a poor result like the second half of last season, where a Carling Cup defeat to Birmingham derailed their campaign.
itw Wojciech Szczesny