Arsenal answered their critics and kept their season alive with a 2-0 win at AC Milan in the last 16 of the Europa League on Thursday. We look at how they did it…
Arsenal’s season was on the line.
It’s only early March, but as they stepped out at the San Siro, Arsenal’s players knew their 2017/18 campaign would be as good as over with a heavy defeat to in-form AC Milan.
With Arsenal miles behind in the top-four race, defeated in the Carabao Cup final and out of the FA Cup, beleaguered boss Arsene Wenger could not afford another disappointment in this Europa League last-16 first-leg tie.
But in the face of all the criticism that has poured their way and the ‘negative spiral’ Laurent Koscielny said the players were going through, Arsenal responded in remarkable style.
After the shock of Ostersunds, the back-to-back humbling at the hands of Manchester City and the desperate display in defeat at Brighton, few would have predicted Arsenal to come up with a result – and a performance – like this.
There was an early nervousness – understandable from an Arsenal team which had lost four in a row. While a Henrikh Mkhitaryan shot into the side netting signalled the visitors’ intent to take the game to their hosts, a responding effort from Patrick Cutrone was a reminder of Arsenal’s frailty in defence.
But then, in the space of a couple of first-half minutes, fortune smiled on the Gunners.
Hakan Calhanoglu’s decision to skip over David Ospina’s reckless slide, rather than allow himself to be taken out by the Colombian, was costly for Milan. A penalty would surely have been awarded had he hit the deck. Moments later Arsenal were ahead, thanks to Mkhitaryan’s shot looping up and in off Leonardo Bonucci. Milan ‘keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma was left with no chance.
That slice of luck emboldened Arsenal and they pressed for another as half-time approached.
With a variety of options at his disposal, Wenger has struggled to find the right forward combination at times this season – but Arsenal clicked in attack at the San Siro.
Danny Welbeck, Arsenal’s only available striker, rose to the challenge, producing a typically tireless display and linking well with his supporting cast of Mkhitaryan, Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.
He harassed the Milan defenders when they were in possession, and took the attack to them with direct runs with the ball at his feet. His fine through ball in first-half stoppage time should have been converted by Mkhitaryan, who smacked his shot against the top of the crossbar.
Instead it was Ozil – drifting infield to take up dangerous central positions – who provided the build-up to both Arsenal goals. The first – for Mkhitaryan’s deflected opener – was a wonderful lofted pass. The second was even better: a perfectly weighted slide-rule delivery for Ramsey to coolly convert a one-on-one on the stroke of half-time.
In the second half, the focus shifted to Arsenal’s defence, as AC Milan – on a run of 13 games unbeaten – surged forward for a response. Could Arsenal – on their joint-longest run in the Premier League without a clean sheet – hold firm?
It wasn’t always pretty and there were moments when AC Milan looked like they might break through, but Arsenal showed a resilience which has badly been missing this season.
That was especially true in the final 15 minutes. Time after time Arsenal found a way to break down the Milan attacks, coming up with six blocks in all. Only once this season in the Premier League have they produced more.
Ospina’s sprint out to deny Nikola Kalinic as he ran through on goal with eight minutes to go was vital – and better timed than his first effort on Calhanoglu. Despite the pressure, Arsenal restricted Milan to just one shot on target.
Relief then, for Wenger, who can enjoy the taste of victory again. But of course, the job is only half done. And any Arsenal fan who was in the stands for that shock second-leg defeat to Ostersunds in the previous round will know no opposition should be underestimated.
On Thursday night, Arsenal delivered a timely response to their critics. It has come late in the season. So late they only have one competition to fight for. The challenge now is to deliver again next week and make sure it counts.
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