Arsenal 3-0 AC Milan: So Very, Very Close

There are times that I thank fate, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever for the fact that I have a nice, stable corporate job. Then, there are times where Arsenal almost pull off the greatest comeback in European football history, and I suddenly wish I were unemployed.

I followed the Guardian's minute-by-minute in the midst of frantically trying to finish something I had due for my boss today...and now, I'm watching the highlights on 101 Great Goals. I'll touch on the major events of the game in due course, but first I wanted to mention how impressed I am with this Arsenal team today.

Today, they gave us a battling performance worthy of the cannons on their shirts. For the very small minority who I have seen say this wasn't good enough, I tell you with all due respect to get stuffed. You can't say on one hand that all you ask is that the team care and that they give their best effort (a common trope stated during losing streaks, including by yours truly in fairness), and then on the other bitch and moan about how our guys tired a bit and couldn't find the fourth goal. Yes, we bloody know that there isn't enough depth in the squad. Yes, we bloody know that we're over-reliant on Robin van Persie. Yes, we bloody know that the first leg in Milan was a disaster, a shitshow of epic proportions.

If you can't enjoy the fact that our guys showed guts, heart and determination and essentially recreated the end of Rocky ("Arsenal doesn't think this is a damn show...they think it's a damn fight!"), then what on earth do you follow this stuff for? I'm not going to be one of those tossers that resorts to "Go and support S***s!" the second someone disagrees with me, but I think that sometimes there's a lot to be said for losing with honor and with fighting spirit. The true window into a person's or a team's character is what they do (not say, do) in the face of adversity.

Arsenal triumphed in that respect, even if they didn't win.

For their part, AC Milan gambled a bit with their tactics. Massimiliano Allegri attempted to fight fire with fire, countering Arsene Wenger's highly attacking lineup (RVP, Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all started) with a front three of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Stephan El Shaarawy. If I were in Allegri's shoes, I'd take into account the S***s and Liverpool results and figure that Arsenal would come out guns ablaze for 15-20 minutes, set up my stall to catenaccio the threat away, and then release the hounds as they tired.

Instead, Laurent Koscielny took advantage of decidedly non-Italian defending to give us the lead inside of 8 minutes. Off of a corner kick, the big Frenchman was left disgracefully unmarked by Ignazio Abate on the near post. Koscielny didn't get the cleanest contact possible on the ball, but it was more than enough to guide it into the net.

Had Milan gone out today, Abate would probably have been strangled to death by goalkeeper Cristian Abbiati in the locker room after the game. Further, no sane jury would have convicted him.

From what I read, Arsenal tore into them from there, as a bit of panic surely set in for Milan.

Now, I may get slated for comparing my own humble 7-a-side experiences to a major European tie, but fuck it, I'm going to do it anyway. If you've ever played a team sport at any level, I sincerely hope this hasn't happened to you. But, sometimes you get out to a big lead and a potent combination of over-excitement, arrogance and a tinge of fear seeps into your play. On one hand, everything is going great and victory is in your grasp, but all it takes is one little pinprick and the bubble spectacularly bursts. Two seasons ago, my Sunday league team was in the hunt for the title yet again (we are infamously the close-but-no-cigar team in the league) and we were playing our bogey team - the one that gets one jammy, shitty goal and then catenaccios us to death the rest of the way. Well, this time we were up 3-0 inside of five or six minutes. All it took was one crappy deflected own-goal though, and the wheels came off. Panic set in, defensive posts were abandoned in a suicidally-high line, and all of a sudden we were down 4-3 at halftime...which is how it finished. Again, death by catenaccio.

The point is, I can almost sympathize with Milan here.

Once I saw Koscielny scored, I thought to myself "one more goal here and this may get interesting." Sure enough, Goal Machine Tomas Rosicky doubled our lead and tightened sphincters all up and down Europe's Boot.

A Milan team in control of themselves would never have conceded it, though. A simple cutback across the face of goal was intercepted by Thiago Silva. He could have put it anywhere else on the pitch and the danger would have passed - instead, he under-hit a lazy clearance straight down the middle of the area to Rosicky. That was bad enough, but the Czech man didn't have a defender anywhere near him, leaving him with the time and space to fire past the helpless Abbiati and in.

Say what you want about our defense, and most of it will be true. But, that may be the worst goal I've seen conceded this season, and I saw the 5-2 evisceration of our nearest and dearest. By the way, the color commentator made a big deal about the Milan keeper being beat at his near post. The color commentator is also an idiot - if any keeper expected his teammate to give away the ball that badly that close to goal, then that's not good anticipation, that's PTSD.

Clearly, this was a side that would have benefited from an ice hockey-style timeout. Had Allegri had the chance to remind them that they were still well ahead and that one patient counter-attack would kill off the tie for good, they may have recovered mentally enough to continue. The great thing about this sport is that such a thing isn't an option, allowing for a story like this to continue.

Arsenal pressed on, and their hard work was rewarded when Milan's defense creaked again in the 41st minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain didn't have much in the way of support as he made his run, so the direct route was the only option. He fearlessly charged into the Milan area, and was sandwiched by Djamel Nesbah and Antonio Nascerino on his way to goal. Again, a Rossoneri side in normal circumstances calmly shepherds The Ox away from danger or nicks the ball off of him. Instead, in a panic, they concede a mindless penalty which RVP duly dispatched into the top corner as cool as you bloody like.

If Milan were panicking before, they were shitting themselves now. To put this in perspective, if Abbiati hadn't made the single greatest save I've seen in Europe this season in the first leg, we'd have been winning at this point on away goals.

Arsenal apparently flagged a bit in the second half, the pace of the game and the gravity of the occasion wearing on what was already a bedraggled squad. How different things could have been though with a little bit of luck in the 58th minute. Rosicky won the ball in midfield, and sent a through-ball in to a wide-open Gervinho. Had it not been fractionally behind him, the Ivorian was in alone on Abbiati. Even still, he got a shot away that deflected off of the defender. If only that butterfly in the Amazon Basin flapped its wings a little faster, it's an own-goal and Milan have well and truly thrown it all away. Abbiati brilliantly repelled it with his legs, but the rebound came out to an unmarked RVP on the back post.

I would have bet my mother's life that the Dutchman would have buried it. Thankfully for me, her and my family, that option was not available to me.

Instead, his tame effort was hoovered up by the grateful Abbiati. Had that gone in, there's no doubt in my mind that the fifth would have come - the Italians would have absolutely went to pieces. It was not to be, though. That's how fickle momentum can be in this game - all it takes is one goal to make a huge lead seem vulnerable, and yet all it takes is one stroke of luck to remember that you can play this game after all...and to make it seem like that great comeback is destined to fall just a little bit short.

Milan started to haul themselves back in it, and forced Wojceich Szczesny into some decent saves. Nocerino then had a glorious chance to apply the coup de grace, but fluffed his lines in much the same manner as RVP had some minutes before. It didn't matter, though. There wasn't enough gas left in the tank to seriously test Abbiati from that point on, and throwing on Marouane Chamakh and Ju-Young Park wasn't going to change anything.

Arsenal were out, but only on the judges' scorecards.

There's no ratings or MOTM today, as I didn't see the whole thing. All I know is that I'm proud to be a Gooner today...and I'd much rather be in our shoes than Zenit St. Peterburg's, that's for sure.

The hell with it, let's go Geordie hunting on Monday.