The last few weeks have been heady ones for an Arsenal side that was all but buried after what Arsene Wenger called their “worst ever” night in Europe. Blown out 4-0 at the San Siro three weeks prior, few felt this patchy, leaky squad could even do enough to qualify for next year’s European places in the Premier League.
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Since that humiliating display, the Gunners have shown they have heart. They recovered against Tottenham in the league to record an ecstatic 5-2 win in the North London Derby; they stole a win against Liverpool on the weekend, and tonight, they came out from the tunnel looking like a team that could pull off the impossible.
That they fell short tonight – winning 3-0 to AC Milan but leaving the competition after a 4-3 aggregate defeat – should not blemish what Arsenal did accomplish. After all, no team has ever lost in the Champions League after posting a 4-0 first leg win, and only three teams have overcome a four-goal deficit in European play over the past 57 years. Believe it: Arsenal came damn close to changing all that.
Starting off with an uncontested header by Laurent Koscielny in just the 7th minute, the Gunners racked up three goals in a rampant first half that made a shambles of the normally disciplined Milanese side. Djamel Mesbah had an absolute shocker of a half, conceding a penalty kick that Robin van Persie converted, and getting beaten badly by Theo Walcott to set up Tomas Rosicky’s goal at the 26th minute.
Furthermore, Milan got nothing going on offense, with the usually porous Arsenal back line holding their discipline and getting a keeper Wojciech Szczesny superb in the nets.
Zlatan Ibrahamovic? Invisible. Robinho, who had disemboweled the Gunners in Milan? Absent.
It was as if Milan didn’t believe there was any way they could lose their advantage – and that sense of certainty nearly cost them dearly.
The turning point came in the second half when goalkeeper Christian Abbiati stopped a deflected shot from Gervinho with his legs, and then somehow denied van Persie a chance at the rebound. Had that ball sunk, we might be talking about history. Instead, that was the moment when order was preserved and the legs seemed to go out of Arsenal for good.
Milan would proceed to tighten things up, with Ignazio Abate calming things down measurably, and Mark van Bommel and Antonio Nocerino getting some purchase in a gap-filled midfield. Arsenal simply ran out of gas, unable to replace Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, both removed injured, and the night ended with a whimper.
Ultimately, bravery was the order of the day for Arsenal, even if their charge fell just short.
Now, Arsenal must focus on securing a top-four finish in England. Milan move on and await their next opponent in the quarterfinal draw. And Londoners will be left wondering, “what if?”
Benfica joined Milan in the night’s other match, needing only a halfway decent performance in Lisbon against a shell-shocked Zenit St. Petersburg side to progress to the quarterfinal draw 2-0 (4-3) for the first time in six years.
The two-time European Cup winners were always on top. Zenit St. Petersburg arrived to defend and never found any fluency on attack. The Russians, devoid of ideas, failed to make Benfica goalkeeper Artur work at all with their lone, best chance coming when the `keeper gave away possession in his own penalty area and scrambled to hold a shot from Roman Shirokov.
As such, Maxi Pereira’s first half goal in injury time was enough for the Lisbon Reds, as they leveled on aggregate at 3-3 and in the qualifying position, thanks to the two away goals they had scored in Russia.
That goal came from a superb bit of work from Axel Witsel, one of several Benfica players who gave the visitors more than they could handle. Witsel forced a brilliant save from Zenit `keeper Vyascheslav Malafeev, who blocked his point-blank shot but could not hold it. Witsel somehow managed to react quickly enough to back-heel the rebound into Maxi Pereira’s path. It turned out to be the decisive moment.
That should have elicited a response from the Russians. It did not. They had no one to replace the injured Danny, their midfield conductor, and even three second half changes did nothing to raise their level. Bluntly, their performance tonight was yards short of those they had produced in the group stages.
Benfica didn’t get a second until substitute Nelson Oliveira scored in stoppage time, but they controlled the tempo of the match, forced several chances and never looked like losing.
Champions League round of 16 continues tomorrow with surprise package APOEL trying to recover from a one-goal deficit at home against Lyon while Barcelona are expected to cruise at Camp Nou over Bayer Leverkusen. Coverage begins on FOX Soccer at 2 p.m. ET, and every game is brought to you live on the FOX Family of networks. Games can also be followed live in real-time via FoxSoccer.com’s MatchTrax or on Twitter through the @FoxSoccerTrax feed.