Arsenal failed their mission impossible last night thanks to some shrewd tactical tinkering at half-time by Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri.
AC Milan and seemingly unassailable leads make for uneasy bedfellows. There have been the nightmares of La Coruna in 2004, then Liverpool in 2005 – and Arsenal 2012 look for a while set to become another traumatic evening in the Champions League.
There was no doubt that part of the performance in the return leg was conditioned by Milan’s frame of mind that the hard work had already been done at the San Siro a fortnight previously – and even if Arsenal threw everything at them there was little fear that a 4-0 advantage would be overturned.
In fact, the Italian champions strolled into their London hotel on the eve of the match without seemingly a care in the world – and even skipped a light training session at the Emirates – content to put their feet for the evening.
The lax attitude certainly carried on into the match proper where Rossoneri hearts were left sinking at the end of a pulsating first half – ‘What a scare,” screamed La Gazzetta dello Sport this morning.
The interval was a thankful respite and an opportunity for coach Massimiliano Allegri to finally take control of a situation that had threatened to get out of hand from the moment the laid-back party boarded the flight in Italy.
“Forget the first half – oh and by the way, wake up.”
Asked what he had told the players at the break, Allegri who in fairness never gets too carried away one way or the other but prefers a slice of sarcasm to go with his dealings with the press, replied: “Forget the first half – oh and by the way, wake up.”
Certainly there were enough experienced heads in the team to understand that the match needed everyone switched on to the task at hand – and apart from young striker Stephan El Shaarawy making his Champions League debut and left-back Djamel Mesbah, who happens to be a winger who found himself playing at left-back, the rest of the team had plenty experience of big European occasions.
This, however, cannot be said of Allegri who last season oversaw elimination to Tottenham and his inexperience was exposed once again last night when in the first 45 minutes the team never matched the ferocity of the home side with an intensity of their own.
Having been over-run in midfield and left short-handed along the flanks at least Allegri and his vastly experienced assistant Mauro Tassotti got to grips with what was needed and the tactical changes were key to stemming the tide of Arsenal’s attacks.
With the front three – in fairness how many teams go away from home when all they need to do his defend with such an attacking line-up? – spreading right across the pitch to enable the midfield to close up space through the centre, the visitors were more like their confident self especially when they started to play the ball around.
In fact, they created the better chances apart from one moment of brilliance from Christian Abbiati who stuck up his favoured right arm to block Robin Van Perse’s close-range chip – the goalkeeper had also denied the same player in the first leg, but this save was the turning point.
At the other end, Antonio Nocerino somehow contrived to poke the ball straight at Wojciech Szcesny when a touch either side would have finally put the matter beyond doubt.
In the end, another La Coruna and Istanbul moment was diverted but if Milan want to progress to the latter stages of the competition then they need to get their mindset right – that or not score so many goals in the first leg.
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