Milan holds off Arsenal comeback, Benfica makes it

March 7, 2012

Milan narrowly avoided becoming the victim of the greatest comeback in Champions League history on Tuesday, reaching the quarterfinals despite a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.

The English club was rated a 33-1 shot by bookmakers to advance after losing the first leg 4-0 but closed to within one score of the seven-time champions before halftime on goals by Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky and Robin van Persie.

Both goalkeepers made crucial second-half stops to keep the score 3-0, and Milan hung on to progress 4-3 over two matches and narrowly avoid another embarrassing turnaround in the Champions League.

Milan was on the receiving end of the biggest comeback in Champions League history when it surrendered a 4-1 advantage to Deportivo La Coruna by losing the second leg of a 2004 quarterfinal 4-0. It also suffered the biggest turnaround in a Champions League final by giving up a 3-0 halftime lead over Liverpool.


Liverpool fought back to 3-3 and won the 2005 title in a shootout.

Benfica also advanced Tuesday, beating Zenit St. Petersburg 2-0 to overhaul a 3-2 first-leg deficit and go through 4-3 on aggregate.

Maxi Pereira put Benfica ahead on away goals in first-half injury time and Nelson Oliveira made the game safe in second-half injury time.

Koscielny gave Arsenal hope in the seventh minute, heading in totally unmarked from a corner kick. Milan's shaky defense allowed Rosicky a similar amount of space 19 minutes later, failing to clear the ball to allow the Czech Republic international to pass it into the net from just inside the area.

Alex Oxade-Chamberlain won a 43rd-minute penalty when he sprinted between Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino, tumbling to the ground in the top corner of the area after clipping Mesbah's heels.

Van Persie dispatched the resulting kick into the top right corner for 3-0 at halftime and almost drew Arsenal level on aggregate in the 59th, putting a rebound shot straight at Christian Abbiati after the goalkeeper had blocked Gervinho's deflected attempt.

Arsenal's hunt for a fourth goal to level the scores began to leave space after halftime, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic shot just wide from long range after intercepting a loose pass from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. Szczesny atoned for his mistake with a point-blank stop with his boot after Nocerino had shot from Alberto Aquilani's pass.

Portuguese side Benfica advanced to the last eight for the first time in six years as Russian champion Zenit tried to cling to its slim advantage and made little impression at Lisbon's Stadium of Light.

Pereira drove in from Axel Witsel's back-heeled pass and substitute Oliveira rounded off a counterattack.

Defending champion Barcelona tries to protect a 3-1 lead against visiting Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday, when Lyon goes to surprise qualifier APOEL, in Nicosia, Cyprus.



LONDON (AP) - Chelsea reached the FA Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday, winning a replay 2-0 at Birmingham in its first match since firing coach Andre Villas-Boas.

Juan Mata and Raul Meireles scored second-half goals to take the Premier League club through to a meeting with another second-tier side, Leicester.

Roberto Di Matteo, who has stepped up from his role as Villas-Boas' assistant to lead the team for the rest of the season, left Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Daniel Sturridge out of his starting lineup.

Although the influence of experienced players was widely cited by British newspapers as being central in Chelsea's poor performances under Villas-Boas, Di Matteo's decision may have been motivated by a desire to keep them fresh for the club's campaign to qualify for the Champions League.

''My thoughts tonight go to Andre,'' Di Matteo said. ''It was important tonight to go through to the next round, for our club and for our supporters.

''We have two months left to the end of the season. We have to try to achieve what we have set ourselves for this season. It's only possible if the 25 players in the squad are a little bit unselfish and work together.''

Nikola Zigic troubled Chelsea's defense through an even first half, but Mata scored in the 53rd minute after Birmingham failed to clear a cross by Ramires.

Ramires then set up Meireles seven minutes later for a 25-yard strike into the top corner to seal the team's first win without Villas-Boas.

''You have to move on. Today was the first step,'' Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech said. ''The board and the directors took the decision, which you as a player have to respect.''

Tottenham hosts third-tier club Stevenage in another replayed fifth-round match on Wednesday.



PARIS (AP) - Marseille's hopes of securing a Champions League place for next season took another blow after a 2-0 loss at Evian on Tuesday condemned the former champion to a third straight league defeat without scoring a goal.

Veteran midfielder Jerome Leroy scored both Evian's goals in the first half, as eighth-place Marseille fell eight points behind third-place Lille.

''Everyone knows the mess we're in,'' Marseille defender Jeremy Morel said. ''It's becoming problematic. We're not creating anything. We're going to have to get back on track, otherwise the end of the season is going to be difficult for us.''

Marseille has not won since beating Inter Milan 1-0 in the first leg of their last-16 Champions League match on Feb. 22. That win extended Marseille's unbeaten run to 16 games, but it then lost 1-0 away to Brest and 1-0 at home to Toulouse last weekend.

''There are still a lot of points to get and we have to be optimistic, but we've lost three in a row,'' Marseille coach Didier Deschamps said. ''We were poor in so many areas tonight against an opponent that played with pace and aggression.

''I didn't see the Evian goalie make a save of note in the second half. It shows that we're too tame at the moment. Opponents are hurting us because they're creating a lot of chances. We've lost our solidity at the back.''

Marseille, the French champions two seasons ago, has little time to regroup with a league game at relegation-threatened Ajaccio on Friday, followed by the return leg at Inter four days later.