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The “Oh God, It’s Going To Be A Long Summer” Post

I had a birthday plan in June of last year. Champions League glory for Arsenal on my birthday, having won the Premier League title. Yeah, I am really going to enjoy today…

As the world prepares for the Champions League final this evening, Arsenal prepare for oblivion. That is the media angle and it is becoming warmly embraced by some. Robin van Persie’s failure to sign a new deal before he departed for Euro2012 is indicative of him not returning. In itself – and because of last summer – that is the signal of implosion. Theo Walcott has not signed a new deal and is apparently upset with Arsenal for not getting into negotiations before he departed for Euro2012. Alex Song is just about to enter the last year of his contract, all the good players are going, the bad ones are staying. The sky is falling in and there is a rush to descend into the madness.

Grow a set.

van Persie’s contract talks were scheduled for this week as was his departure for the Dutch squad. That left four days for Arsenal and the Dutchman to meet and discuss the contract. The presumption seems to be that it was a simple, “I’ll sign for this and three M’vila’s”; it is not that simple and with legal teams viewing the opportunity to relieve their clients of some funds in chargeable time, as unrealistic as expecting Arsenal to have completed their transfer business by now. The season has not even finished in some countries and getting players signed now, before the Euro2012 kick-off when their clubs eye the tournament as an opportunity for transfer valuations to rise, is unrealistic.

Yet still that was expected.

As for Walcott and Song, the smell of agent planted stories and journalistic creativity wafts through, luring the unsuspecting in with its decadent scent. Theo’s upset over negotiations not beginning before Euro2012? I doubt it but if he is, tough, it is his own fault for not starting them during the season. Alex Song is about to enter the final straight of a contract? And?

Agendas are being exposed.

That so many contracts are beginning to come to run their course is unsurprising. The players we are talking about have all broken into the first team around 2005 – 2007. Negotiations happened shortly after and new contracts or extensions signed. The continual process of having a young team means that these cycles happen, as opposed to buying ready-made teams of twenty-five year old – even older players – who have the contract they sign and perhaps minor extensions until their useful footballing life to Arsenal ends. If that sounds like players are assets, in the raw basics they are numbers on a balance sheet, assets that produce a revenue stream from the club’s core activity.

It does not mean bad management.

The result of the move to a new stadium, renewing the squad via a youth system means that this is the path that the club chose to tread reaching the merry-go-round at the end of the rainbow. This cycle of constant contract negotiations is going to become very familiar each summer as the deals and the players mature. When the club do enter talks and get contracts signed, they are criticised for even doing that before the focus turns onto the size of the deal. Arsenal are taking an informed punt, banking that the youthful promise will mature into an outstanding player. It doesn’t always work.

It is a process that the club cannot always control; Cesc would not have signed a new deal if offered, neither would Nasri and van Persie, Walcott, perhaps Song, are hedging their bets as is their right, waiting for a time that is beneficial to them to talk or sign deals or leave. This lays bear the hypocrisy of football supporters with claims that the loyalty shown by Arsenal to each of them in difficult times of loss of form or injury – or both – deserve loyalty from the players. Were you or I in similar situations in our own employment, I am sure that the same ‘tugs of the heart strings’ we might feel are felt by players. I am sure that the same feeling of looking after your own interests that the players feel would be reciprocated by us in our own circumstances.

Yeah, I’m a hypocrite. I expect that loyalty to exist.

I want the season to start so that there are genuine grounds for complaint, for the moaning to at least have some substance from events on the pitch. Please Mr Platini, let Arsenal enter Euro2012.

’til Tomorrow.

Albion Reflections: A Bridge Just Far Enough

West Bromwich Albion 2 – 3 Arsenal

0 – 1 Benayoun (4)
1 – 1 Long (11)
2 – 1 Dorrans (15)
2 – 2 Santos (30)
2 – 3 Koscielny (54)

A night of chilling simplicity

Brian Moore’s words prefacing kick-off at Anfield on 26th May 1989 echoed down the years; Arsenal had to win to be sure of Champions League football next season. That win achieved, there is no anxious wait on the outcome next Saturday in Bavaria; no looking at the TV schedules to work out which Thursday night series you will need to set to record. Third place and the attendant benefit had been achieved.

Other more recent memories echoed in this match; last Saturday for example. An early Yossi Benayoun goal cancelled out with opponents turning the scoreline around quickly. This time Arsenal responded, finding an equaliser before half-time, taking a decisive lead early in the second.

Achieving their aim the hard way is de rigeur for the modern Arsenal. Some things never change.

West Brom were in the mood for a party to celebrate Roy Hodgson’s departure; a rare thing for football supporters to be happy a manager is leaving without the subtext of “good riddance” anywhere to be seen. Arsenal punctured that atmosphere in the fourth minute. Possession appeared to be wasted once more with an aimless pass comfortably into the Albion defence; Fulop came to meet as defenders shephereded the ball into his path. Benayoun had other ideas, his predatory instincts coming to the fore as the goalkeeper dithered before the Israeli robbed him of possession and slotted home.

The perfect start required a period of calm, the sting taken from the game. Within ten minutes, the game had been turned on its head. Standards of officiating this season have been criticised to a level never before heard; yesterday’s matches did little to quell that noise. Chris Foy seemed to believe he was in 1950 when he allowed a shoulder charge on the Bolton goalkeeper whilst the offside rule obviously does not apply in the West Midlands; no time for these new-fangled footballing laws here. It beggared belief that an official level with play did not see that Long was two yards offside; that is not a small margin, that is six feet. Nearly a body length.

Five minutes later Albion had the lead as Dorrans fired home following a Morison pass again. Arsenal were on the backfoot when they needed to be controlling the game. If there is one thing that the squad possesses, it is determination. Too many deficits have been recovered or obstacles overcome  for this trait to be easily dismissed.

Arsenal gained their composure and set about retrieving the situation. A lot of possesssion with Rosicky pivotal but there was little end product until Santos let fly from the edge of the area, Fulop’s touch not strong enough to divert the ball to safety. Arsenal were level with an hour remaining.

The pendulum had swung once more towards Arsenal with tension building through Tottenham’s lead. Not that the players would have been aware in that moment, simply relieved to be level. The half peetered out with both sides creating little of note and ceding possession all too readily.

Ten minutes into the second half and Arsenal were in front. Just over a year ago, Laurent Koscielny bore the brunt of criticism for his part in the Arsenal downfall at Wembley. His strength of character has shone through this season and that may be a lesson Marton Fulop can learn. The Albion custodian’s nightmare became complete as he bundled into his own player and misguided his clearing punch from van Persie’s corner into the path of Koscielny who gratefully slammed the ball home. 3 – 2; destiny calling once more.

At which point Arsenal shut up shop and coasted through the final half an hour to secure their Champions League spot for the fifteenth consecutive season.

That’s what I’d like to write but it was not that simple. Albion pressed but created little. Andrews brought a good save from Szczesny before Kieran Gibbs produced an astonishing block as Jones seemed likely to score. Arsène betrayed the tension, clasping Pat Rice’s arm and convulsing in anguish; his Irish deputy was altogether more stoical and not a little bit uncomfortable in the emotional display.

The moment encapsulated the tension that bound the afternoon.

It was a match of highly charged emotions. The players displayed a genuine affection for Pat Rice post-match whilst the manager summed up the non-story of Robin van Persie’s celebration by confirming the words of his captain; they sit down with Ivan Gazidis this week to work it all out. That though is the story of another day; today is to unwind, relax and enjoy third place.

’til Tomorrow.

 

Midweek Magic

It could be worse you know. The deafening silence that confirms the exits from all knockout tournaments replaced by the howling that reverberates through the Alps, wailing about iniquitous refereeing that pervades competitions when Barcelona are at home. Instead there is bemusement that Uefa deems managerial opinion more damaging to the game than racist chanting. Twice as damaging if current fines are anything to go by with Porto escaping with half the financial penalty levied on Arsène Wenger.

I have no doubt that the manager probably merits the punishment, his frustration at Arsenal’s inability to score a fourth in the second half-needing to find a target to vent at. Given this is (potentially) the third such ban that he has incurred in the past two seasons, the impact on Arsenal will be negligible since he will deliver his pre-match talk away from the ground leaving the immediate preparations to whomever his second-in-command is.

Yet when I hear of initiatives here, there and everywhere by Uefa and Fifa, their inability to exercise more punitive punishments against racism strengthens my cynicism. It will not change either; to do so would be an acknowledgement that their beautiful game has a scarred underbelly, something the marketing euro does not want to hear. In that sense, Euro2012 may be the nettlebed that spreads through their garden of roses.

It is a salutary warning for those pinning their hopes on FFP making a positive impact on football. Financial irregularities will not go away, neither will debt or leveraged buyouts. Spending on salaries and transfers will continue to be excessive; the regulations are lip-service to a problem where there is no will to find a solution. Smoke and mirrors are the speciality of football’s governing bodies.

Onto Arsenal. The news surrounding Jack Wilshere is positive. It is tempting to put a more upbeat adjective into that sentence but one setback has already occurred on his quest for fitness. Quest makes it sound like an Arthurian legend, Wilshere a knight in search of some lost treasure that will free his people from tyranny. And in a footballing sense, there are some parallels. It is not just Arsenal looking for him to weave his Merlinesque magic across the pitch, his national squad view him as having talismanic qualities simply through the lack of comparable talent.

Therein is the danger. As in the case of kings from eons past, taking on that burden as well as the one for his club places incredible strain on one so young particularly with his body still maturing. Arsenal appear wary of this nurturing him back to health; England will not care, particularly if Stuart Pearce remains in charge. He has previous for paying scant regard to the real fitness of Arsenal players. It is selfish but part of me hopes Wilshere is rested for the remainder of the season to recover properly. Surely even England coaches realise that no matches in a season means a lack of fitness? Yet that will be supressed in the knowledge that Wilshere may provide a mercurial moment that is the difference between third and fourth place.

Apparently, Oliver Giroud is a target for this summer. At which point I will stop there with this one since it might be true that Arsène has ordered him to be scouted (again) but what is the point in putting a price tag of £50m next to Giroud’s name? There is no question of Arsenal even looking seriously at the player with that kind of money placed on him, even if it is a finger-in-the-air guess based on the ramblings of a madman who happens to be chairman of Montpellier.

I’m off to enjoy the snow whilst it lasts. When I say enjoy, I mean endure. And when I say snow, I mean vile sleet that pretends to hark to sleighs and snowmen but is merely a curse on our times by the evil witch.

’til Tomorrow.

Strong Leadership Will Provide A Good Foundation

My list of life’s certainties yesterday was found to be incomplete. Today sees that rectified with Arsène due before the Uefa beaks for his observations following the second leg victory over AC Milan. Little doubt that the Frenchman will be banned, he always is when it comes to the European kangaroo court.

In some respects Uefa is one of the more forward-thinking of the footballing authorities, emphasised by its willingness to resolve the calendar dispute with the European Clubs Association. Six months of year Michel Platini will have his desk adorned by the monthly reproductions of The Impressionists, the remaining time it will keep Karl-Heinz Ruminegge from being alone.

On the other hand, Uefa has barely set foot out of the Dark Ages. Referees are infallible, technology even if approved by Fifa is not going to be welcome in the Champions League according to chief hatchetman, Gianni Infantino with the preference being the additional referees. Truly the blind are leading the blind with not a one-eyed man in sight.

Not that a ban makes any difference, Arsenal seem to do very well indeed without the manager on the touchline. Pat Rice has capably stood in Arsène’s shoes – preferring a slightly wider fit but not complaining – although the former captain’s own preference is to take retirement at the end of this season, persuaded to continue for one more year last summer. Talking to the media is something he probably will not miss.

Doing very well is a theme for Arsenal this morning. A Premier League table has been produced showing that from January, Arsenal would be third behind City and United. It is due recognition of the efforts since the goalless draw at The Reebok. Gervinho touched on it,

I think that we can cope with everything really. We have had and have been through a lot of difficult times this season. Lots of people have waivered in their belief in us, have said this and that, but we have returned to form.

We are a group of young lads, we get on really well, but we have got stronger during the tough times and showed the real Arsenal. We are going to try and finish the season well and we are happy with that. 

Adversity brings out the true character of the individual and this squad has shown that the trait most regularly deemed to be missing, is in fact there in abundance: mental strength. They could quite easily have capitulated in January. Three defeats and a draw was an exceptionally poor return, the only hope coming from the FA Cup. Yet they continued to play their ‘game’ and reward has come.

That and the continued good run of form since underpins hopes for next season. This campaign is not over but to continue through to May and achieve third would leave a bouyancy around the club going into the summer that was previously not believable.

On its own that is not enough to challenge for a title but belief is a major contributing factor. Confidence was noticeable by its absence last August / September; Old Trafford took its toll on young players,

It was all a little bit of a blur.  It was tough day for me and the Club and it was very hard to swallow. It was a disappointing day for me and it took me a while to get over. It was my first taste of a tough result, but things like that make you stronger, and build you as a man and a character.

The words of Carl Jenkinson underline the impact of one result, the ensuing wobble understandable. With the injury list at any one point in time containing a number of key experienced personnel, to have returned to form twice in one season is of great credit. Finding that consistency over the full campaign is the next step, a stride that has proven too great for some previous groups of Arsenal players in the last decade.

One thing that shines through each time is their belief in each other. Long seen as another weakness – strange that all of the so-called flaws are strengths depending on your viewpoint – the prerequisite of any trophy winning side is unity and trust. That underpins everything; no divided team has won anything.

Gervinho reiterated that,

We are all still young, have got some good players and a good group. We can still win lots of trophies and do great things in the future because we are a good club.

Key to this will be an enhanced squad for next season. Change should not be made for changes sake but continued strengthening is a consistent theme in maintaining success.

If you look at the runs of Liverpool and Manchester United from the 1970s onwards, each summer has seen arrivals and departures. They do not need to be on a massive scale, turbulence is more damaging with volume but a major reason why, for example, George Graham’s 1990-91 side did not go on to dominate English football is that during the summer of 1991, he did not strengthen the squad. Others did and Arsenal’s league challenges suffered accordingly.

Arguably, The Invincibles squad was not strengthened enough in 2004; understandable in that instance with a strong first XIV and one that stayed relatively fit.

To build on youthful promise is not new at Arsenal. In the past five or six seasons there have been two where the squad might have made the step up from being good to great. They were not able to do so for a myriad of reasons. This time the manager has, I think, a better blend of youth and experience but more importantly a set of players who do not seem to sulk, particularly experienced professionals who are willing to drive teammates on to achieve something.

Third place this season would be a good starting point. ’til Tomorrow.

One Of Us Speaks – Pressing Concerns

One of the best things about Tuesday night was the way the team chased the AC Milan players and won the ball so early. Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain charged out of our half like guard dogs defending the driveway of a stately home. Milan looked mystified as we swarmed around them. It all begged the question – why don’t we do this every week?

Ostensibly pressing seems like a win-win; we take the pressure off our defenders and get back onto the front foot where we’ve always been comfortable under Wenger.

If you battle through this column every Friday then you’ll know that this isn’t the place to come to for detailed analysis of the game. What I’m going to post are some hunches and impressions I have about pressing. It won’t be easy, but in times of trouble I often find solace in the Good Book: Rinus Michels’  “Teambuilding: The Road to Success

Tradition

Barcelona are currently the best-known exponents of pressing from the front. And without being much of a football archivist I’m just about aware that Ajax were the originators in the 70s, and that there have been many students of the style in between. After I write this post up we may well have seen Bilbao have a decent go at defending from the front under Marcelo Bielsa against Manchester United on Thursday night.

What do all of these teams have in common? Importantly they’re all very settled when it comes to personnel. We all know about Barcelona and La Masia, blah blah blah – and Ajax are synonymous with youth development. Then there’s Bilbao, who have been transformed from long-ball throwbacks to one of La Liga’s most fashionable teams this season. Their characteristic Basque grit and graft has been harnessed to create a team of worker ants that run themselves into the ground to get the ball back and elevate its two or three stars.

Bilbao’s Basque-centric setup has probably made it easier for Bielsa to implement this pressing game, as it’s a club with few new arrivals and, fortunately for him, few important departures over the last couple of seasons. He must be pleased that the club has just produced a fresh batch of technically gifted players in the meantime.

Continuity

As a given, you’re going to need an advanced backline to make sure there’s as little space between the ranks as possible and ensure that players won’t have to cover too many yards closing the other team down. As we’ve seen with Chelsea this season, it’s a high wire act over a snake pit.

In front of the back four the shape needs to be immaculate. If just one player isn’t covering enough ground or doesn’t have the awareness to close off space in the right areas there’s a knock-on effect, which quite likely would render the approach dangerously ineffective.

Getting your players working together in this way, sharing the strain like geese in formation, takes years. Having presented the examples above, I’m not starting to suggest that all of the players need to be compatriots to make it happen, but I’m pretty sure that at the heart of this philosophy is the kind of trust that can only stem from long-term relationships.

And Arsenal is a club that cannot boast this continuity at the moment. Whether we’re talking about big name sales or injury troubles, I’m not convinced our players have been together long enough to make it work every week. As every season ends Wenger tells us how we need to keep the team together. He knows it’s not just about retaining our stars but also making sure there are players from the previous year to keep some kind of coherent strategy.

Thinking about the amount of defenders we’ve gone through this season, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for one of our midfielders to think twice about vacating a space to press the ball if he’s not familiar with the people behind him.

Attitude

Key as well is that you need to be convinced of your superiority over your opponent. In the matches where we have pressed teams to death over the last couple of years, nearly every example I can think of took place at home, where we usually expect to win, regardless of opposition.

But on days when half the team is missing through injury, and we’re away against a top half Premier League club that can remain composed in the face of pressure…I’m not sure my heart’s ready for that kind of action.

Just as the shape of the team off the ball depends on an understanding cultivated long-term, so does the possession game. When you press you’ve got to use the ball efficiently when you get it – whether keeping it for an extended spell in order to rest, or to pose an immediate threat – to reward that hard work.

Once again, we haven’t really had the kind of squad continuity to play our signature game, but as we enter the last few months of the season we do seem to be combining better. If you can’t keep the ball after fighting so hard to win it you’re asking for trouble and dehydration.

Don’t tell me you want a conclusion

Thinking back again to the better examples of Arsenal pressing, they were nights when a devil-may-care state of mind was the only appropriate way to go about the challenge: That 3-1 win against Chelsea in 2010 when we were lagging behind after a poor autumn, Barcelona at home in 2011 and Milan the other day.

Can the team be roused to get about their opponents in such a predatory fashion on a weekly basis? I don’t know, but once again I assume the answer depends on whether the team is unified, and of course willing to follow the manager’s instructions. Maybe fans should be aware that this doesn’t happen overnight.

So that’s about it. One last thing worth adding, especially relevant to the tradition heading, is that Arsenal is trying to instill a culture of pressing further down the age groups, so hopefully any youngster that comes through will be predisposed to defending high up the pitch.

Cheers Big Al. Over at Arsenal On This Day we have the 1971 double season encounter with 1FC Köln or Cologne as they more simply known as then. Who’d have thought that choosing that match would suddenly become topical.

Arsène Says, Roberto Says, Per Says – The Tattle That Underpins Football

The usual European exit fallout has begun; manager charged, top star coveted and all in all, it’s much ado about nothing.  That Arsène is facing the Uefa beaks once more is of little surprise; he simply has not learned to curb his enthusiasm about the referee’s performance.

Football is a curious industry. Everyone can comment on a manager, player or team performance. They can even say it to the players and managers faces. A referee? No, they are infallible. Sepp has continually decreed this which is why video technology in a limited and pretty much useless form, is being dragged kicking and screaming into the game.

And goal-line technology is a sop. Had Frank Lampard’s “goal” not been in a World Cup match, there is no way Fifa would have agreed to the trial. How often in a season is there a contentious goal-line decision? Rarely. It won’t address anything important like an incorrect offside decision where it is too close to call without relying on probabilities. The problem is that the technology is going to be watched, waiting for failure rather than success. When it goes wrong – and it will – the possibility of introducing other technology to help officials will recede from the remote position it is in now.

Arsène knows the rules. We know the rules. There is little point in talking to the referee post-match in England; Europe is ten times worse. Officials are prissy and arrogant. The decision making by the Slovenian referee was awful at times, to the extent that in giving the penalty he went against the grain. I have read comments that blame it on his nationality, that he would not have been used to the intense atmosphere generated by the occasion.

Poppycock; the problem is that Uefa want consistency and the only way you get that is a literal interpretation of the rules which is quite often entirely different to those applied in the national game. This is not a new problem; complaints were regularly made when I was young about officiating behind the Iron Curtain. Which is before you consider the open corrupting of officials by the Italian clubs. Some stigma’s never disappear.

I understand Arsène’s frustrations. His team had come close to overturning a four goal deficit and creating Champions League history. It looked for all intents and purposes as though it was going to happen early in the second half. Ultimately though, the players looked shattered at the end, in need of someone to inspire them and they could not find it. The referee contributed to that in part with his decisions but he is not the sole cause. Wenger needed someone to vent at, the referee was his target. The experience of Udinese shows the pointless nature of a touchline ban.

As if that was not enough, the media this morning talk of Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City monitoring Robin van Persie’s situation. To me, it is a non-event with headlines fuelling anger rather than Mancini himself. Or that is how it ought to be. Let’s remember that Arsène is not averse to talking about other players and that Mancini actually said that he believes van Persie will sign a new contract in any case.

Is there any difference between Mancini talking to the media about van Persie and Mertesacker about Podolski? No matter what justification you might want to find – and internet / tabloid rumours are not a confirmed transfer – there is none.

We have become very sensitive to rumour-mongering at Arsenal. From 2000 onwards, there were regular stories linking Henry and Vieira amongst others, away from the club. They did not come true until Arsenal were ready to release them. Simply because Nasri and Fabregas left last Summer does not mean that van Persie will follow. And more to the point, his advisors will have been in contact already and know what City / Barcelona / Madrid / Anyone FC are ready to offer; it’s the way of football.

Amid all of this is the praise for the Dutchman that came from the City manager, recognition of his standing in the world game. Comparing him with Ronaldo and Messi is not amiss. In my opinion he is a more effective team player than the former whilst the latter, well, anyone who argues that he is not one the greatest players ever to appear on a football pitch is being churlish or a fool. Or both.

As it is, van Persie could arguably be voted as World Player of the Year this year if he stays injury-free.  His form has been [insert your own adjective here] and arguably has had a more beneficial impact on the team than Messi has on Barcelona, lifting the team to higher levels. It seems likely that Barcelona would have won most, if not all, trophies had Messi not been playing every game. Personally I think van Persie will be a more likely winner of the European Player of the Year. As for the domestic honours, if he doesn’t win the Players and Football Writers awards it will be more of a travesty than Henry not being honoured internationally when he was in his prime.

’til Tomorrow.

Arsenal Restore Pride And Belief In Champions League Exit

Arsenal 3 – 0 AC Milan

1 – 0 Koscielny (7)
2 – 0 Rosicky (26)
3 – 0 van Persie (43 pen)

Beforehand all that everyone could agree on was that the performance had to restore pride. That happened; my goodness me, how that happened. How anyone cannot be proud of the players’ endeavours last night is beyond me, beyond comprehension even.

It was a match that captured the essence of knockout cup football. Overwhelming obstacles almost overcome; hopes raised, belief instilled albeit in some cases just for the occasion. There were no first night nerves in this one night stand. It highlighted how perverse and tired the format group format has become.

As I mentioned in the preview yesterday, there was a sense of jumpers for goalposts about the match; the next goal wins. Milan score first and tie was over. Arsenal score and score early; dare to believe. And Laurent Koscielny duly obliged. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner was met by the Frenchman who had  found space in the area, delivering a calm and assured finish. It was the perfect start, the one that was required to drive the team and start to put doubts in the mind of the Milanese.

The momentum was building. van Persie’s shot might have been comfortably saved by Abbiati, the signal of intent could not be missed. Milan were not allowed to settle on the ball, forced into working hard to close Arsenal down as the hosts sought to use all of the width of the pitch.

Arsenal’s expansive passing and movement was underlining the impact of the decision to disrupt the flanks of the San Siro by relaying the pitch. A second goal before the interval would have made the second half interesting.

It duly arrived from a resurgent Tomas Rosicky. The Czech’s inspired form of recent weeks has seen him find the back of the net with the regularity that Arsenal have been missing from their midfielders. Theo Walcott put his head down and charged toward the byline, the cross was almost as aimless as Thiago’s clearance. Rosicky shimmied before caressing the ball into the back of the net, beating Abbiati at his near post. No haste but plenty of guided power in the finish.

The lid of the box of dreams was being pushed open, the Champions League desperate to be released.

As the half wore on the dream became more real, kicking and screaming it’s way toward freedom, an outcome that became believable as the interval loomed. Oxlade-Chamberlain squirmed and wriggled in the area but Milanese bulkheads blocked his path, illegally and suitably punished as van Persie buried the spot-kick, sending Abbiati the wrong way.

The half-time whistle came, too soon, unnecessarily. Milan were rolling as Arsenal rocked; the break enabled them to clear their heads, have the fug fully removed. Perhaps Arsenal needed it too; El Shaarawy drilled his shot wide when hitting the target was easier. Had it gone in, the dream would have been shackled and dumped unceremoniously away once more.

A lack of ambition had gone close to killing the visitors in the opening half, the second would see them attempt to press more. Arsenal reverted to a counter-attacking style, one that ceded impetus to some extent. Yet it almost bore fruit fifteen minutes after the restart.

And how the score remained at three is still a mystery. Gervinho’s shot was too much for Abbiati to hold onto, the ball fell to van Persie and Hollywood took over the world, spinning it at a slower speed as the Dutchman flicked his shot upwards and over Abbiati toward an unguarded Italian net. How the goalkeeper stopped the ball before it reached it’s apex is a mystery. It baffled him as well since he was unable to detect it’s location when his parry stopped the ball’s flight. Aretha might have said a little prayer but I would venture that i Rossonerri are offering as many prayers of thanks to their respective gods as is possible.

In hindsight, it was a pivotal moment. Had the ball finished in the next, it is not unbelivable that the final score would have been six or more. As it was Ibrahimovic nearly brought the mountain back to full size, seizing on slack distribution by Szczesny but firing wide.

The introduction Chamakh and Park brought no breakthrough. It brought home the iniquity of the transfer window; I wonder if the manager pondered for a moment over what might have been had Henry or Arshavin or both been on the bench to call upon?

Nocerino had two late openings in quick succession, Szczesny’s shotstopping qualities not in doubt with two fine saves.

But the goal to usher in extra-time would not arrive. The energy levels expended in the opening seventy minutes possibly meant that was welcomed by the players on a physical level but any thoughts of tiredness would have been banished by the mental boost of a fourth.

The match petered out but you could tell from the players reactions how close they felt they had come to making the impossible seem possible. Anguish and pride were etched on experienced faces; heroic failure on the football pitch. And a realisation of what might have been had the first leg not been cast into the four winds.

Many positives come from the result, not just in keeping a winning momentum going. After all, successive cup defeats had not negatively impacted on Premier League form. I think more will be gained from the comprehensive manner of victory; Milan were brushed away with ease. They may not have the calibre of Baresi or Maldini at the back but still they haunt the upper echelons of Serie A. Quality opposition reduced to distinctly average.

I hope this has a galvanising effect on both support and players. Knowing that such heights of performance can be reached should instill belief for the remainder of this campaign. Hope should never die.

’til Tomorrow.

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