Sam Dean, San Siro (report)
Arsene Wenger’s career has been far too long, and far too successful, for a round-of-16 match in Europe’s secondary competition to rank among his greatest nights. And yet the pure satisfaction he will derive from this result, from this taming of a buoyant AC Milan side in a packed-out San Siro, will surely compare to anything else he has experienced in these turbulent recent years.
Given the circumstances, this was a quite extraordinary response from a group of players that had themselves admitted to falling in to a “negative spiral” of despair following four consecutive defeats. Their season was finished, they had been told, with their hopes of Champions League qualification extinguished by a 13-point gap to fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur.
Even this meeting with Milan, as their final hope of salvaging this sorry campaign, looked to be a mountain too steep. Gennaro Gattuso’s side had not lost a game since before Christmas. They had not even conceded a goal in their last six matches.
This, really, was where it was all supposed to end. And, shortly after, so would Wenger’s time at the club. Instead, Henrikh Mkhitaryan showed why Wenger thought he was a worthy replacement for Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil demonstrated why Arsenal believe he merits £350,000 a week.
Mkhitaryan scored one, Ozil created two, and a defence that had been so shattered by Brighton last weekend was suddenly controlling a resurgent Milan. By the time Aaron Ramsey strolled through to score the second, leaving the prodigious Gianluigi Donnarumma flailing helplessly on the floor, Arsenal could have had three or four.
The job is not done – if any side is capable of shipping three goals in the second leg, it is Arsenal – but this was far more than anyone at the club could have hoped for. Not least Wenger, whose stubborn belief that he remains the best man for the job will only have been fuelled by a performance that no one saw coming, particularly after two terrifying opening minutes.
The game had begun as anyone who had seen either of these teams in recent weeks would have expected. Milan forced two corners in those two minutes, and Giacomo Bonaventura almost had a tap-in at the back post after a front-post header had been flicked on.
At this early stage, it looked as if these stuttering Arsenal players were tumbling deeper and deeper into the “negative spiral” that Laurent Koscielny had discussed ahead of the match. But Milan’s midfield appeared to have been infected by a confidence crisis of their own, and were in a charitable mood.
The spaces were opening up for the visitors before even 10 minutes had passed. Jack Wilshere found himself on the edge of the Milan box, but chose to tee up Mkhitaryan instead of trying to beat the fearsome Donnarumma between the opposition posts. Mkhitaryan, with a tighter angle, could only hit the side-netting.
Barely six minutes later, the Armenian had another chance to score his first goal in an Arsenal shirt. Ozil floated one of those languid passes into his path, and Mkhitaryan chopped back inside before his shot cannoned off Leonardo Bonucci and past Donnarumma. It was the first goal Milan had conceded in 539 minutes of football.
Still, the game remained remarkably open. Both sides continued to be sloppy in midfield, while players all over were struggling to keep their footing on the San Siro surface. These may have been two sides with Champions League pedigree, but for large parts of the first half there was no mistaking the fact that this was Europa League football.
It was a byproduct of this lack of quality, particularly from Milan, that Gattuso’s were struggling for fluidity. Yet there remained a threat, with Hakan Calhanoglu in particular causing problems down the left, while Bonaventura crashed another effort wide following a weak David Ospina punch.
There was no doubt over which side looked more likely to score the second, though, and Milan were easily sliced apart as Danny Welbeck charged towards goal from the left-hand side. The Englishman, who had not scored in his previous games, could only roll a tame effort into Donnarumma’s arms.
Fortunately for Arsenal, Ramsey more than made up for Welbeck’s lack of composure in stoppage time of the first half. Again it was Ozil with the telling pass, and Ramsey was left all alone as he sent Donnarumma sprawling on the floor before tapping in Arsenal’s second.
Another Milan error, this time from midfielder Franck Kessie, almost provided Welbeck with another clean run on goal, but once again Welbeck was unable to make the most of his opportunity.
Having flourished going forward in the first half, Arsenal were able to solidify in the second. Milan were reduced to long-range efforts, with one Suso effort that went out for a throw-in provided a neat encapsulation of their efforts.
They will come again, and Arsenal may well collapse. What is for certain, though, is that Wenger has arrested the slide, for now at least.