Milan rout ruins Henry’s farewell
AC Milan 4 Arsenal 0
This was men against boys, heavyweights battering lightweights, a ruthless Serie A side ripping apart naive visitors from the Premier League. Arsenal were outpaced, out-thought and out-fought as Arsene Wenger's woeful failure to invest properly last summer finally caught up with them.
They still have the home leg against Milan on March 6 but only the wildest optimist at the Emirates will anticipate anything other than a wake. This thrashing was totally deserved. Milan were magnificent. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was majestic, making two for Robinho after Kevin-Prince Boateng started the rout, and eventually, deservedly a finish for himself, a penalty.
Arsenal had enjoyed 54pc possession in the first half but Milan were too sharp, too quick, too assertive and totally deserving of their two-goal lead.
The Italians were as good as Arsenal were poor, ruthlessly exploiting the visitors' wastefulness with the ball, chronic uncertainty in midfield and some disorganised defending. Even Thomas Vermaelen, usually such an assured defender, endured a torrid, error-riddled evening. He was not alone. Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky gave the ball away far too often.
For all Arsenal's incompetence and nerves, Milan deserve praise. Ibrahimovic was terrific, sweeping passes around, playing his best football in his 14th appearance against English opposition. The Swede rarely lives up to his vaunted Serie A reputation against the English, barring a two-goal, 13-minute purple patch against Arsenal two years ago, but he was unstoppable in the first half here.
Robinho, who scored twice before the hour-mark, was similarly impressive, his quick, confident footwork placing Arsenal fears about the newly-laid pitch in a different light.
Wenger's concerns about the surface had been highlighted when Robin van Persie had run out for the kick-in, carrying a change pair of boots and stooped down to feel the turf. Wenger's worries about the "terrible" pitch had been predominantly out wide, where Kieran Gibbs was returning for his first game since October.
Rosicky was fielded on the left, protecting Gibbs, yet the Czech was soon in attacking mode, although his early effort forced the additional assistant referee to take evasive action. Rosicky faded after that in the first half.
Arsenal had briefly looked as bright as their yellow strip in the early stages, Theo Walcott gliding past Mark van Bommel, but it was an illusion, a deepening frustration for the 4,900 visiting fans up in the Gods.
As they looked down, things were not looking up. Milan were soon in their stride, happily flying down the flanks or working the ball swiftly through the middle. Clarence Seedorf soon sent Boateng racing behind Bacary Sagna before collecting the back-heeled return but finding the side-netting.
Arsenal were authors of their own demise, their laxness in possession beginning to border on the suicidal. Arteta lost the ball to Robinho, culminating in the excellent right-back Ignazio Abate sending a deflected shot wide. Arsenal were soon made to pay for their wanton disregard of the importance of passing the ball to somebody on the same payroll.
Wojciech Szczesny's poor clearance after 15 minutes was seized on by Antonio Nocerino and Arsenal were punished in spectacular style. Nocerino's pass found Boateng, whose finish was spectacular, smashed on the half-volley past Szczesny. To add insult to injury, Boateng was formerly of Spurs.
Arsenal tried to rally, Van Persie cutting in from the left but the Italians' defence slammed shut like a well-oiled teak door.
Milan were soon back on the offensive, much of the charge led by the excellent Robinho, unrecognisable from his disinterested days at Manchester City. He and Ibrahimovic pulled the strings. The pair created a superb chance for Abate which Arsenal somehow blocked.
Milan added a second goal seven minutes before the interval. Again Arsenal lost the ball, this time Rosicky to Abate. Ibrahimovic had already been causing trouble, often looking for the overlapping Abate. This time he darted down the left, as Arsenal screamed for offside, cut inside to the byline and clipped the ball back for Robinho to head neatly past Szczesny.
Four minutes into the second half, Milan were over the horizon and all but into the quarter-finals. Again frailty by Rosicky gifted the ball to Milan. Again, Ibrahimovic proved the catalyst, inviting Robinho. When Vermaelen slipped, Robinho had all the space required to shoot effortlessly past Szczesny.
Having brought on Thierry Henry for Walcott at the break, Wenger then removed Gibbs, shifted Vermaelen to left-back, Alex Song to centre-half and unleashed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain down the right. Song was soon caught out, bringing down Ibrahimovic and going into Viktor Kassai's book. Maybe he simply wanted to improve on an average reputation in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Arsenal desperately needed a goal to to give them a glimmer of hope for the second leg at the Emirates. Van Persie tried to find a way through but his shot was straight at the 'keeper.
Far from getting back into the game, Arsenal simply fell further behind. Robinho sent Ibrahimivic into the box and there was Johan Djourou obligingly fouling him. Henry sought to give Szczesny some advice but Ibrahimovic stayed calm during the delay. Then he drilled his penalty in.
The Arsenal fans paid an emotional farewell to Henry. Their team has probably said ciao to the Champions League as well. (© Daily Telegraph, London)