Wenger relief as Gunners find their spark again
AC Milan 0 Arsenal 2
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 taming of a buoyant AC Milan side in a packed 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 into 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 (€393,000) a week.
Mkhitaryan scored one, Ozil created two, and a defence that had been so shattered by Brighton last Sunday 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 the visitors missed a couple of good chances before Mkhitaryan scored his first goal in an Arsenal shirt.
Ozil floated one of those languid passes into his path and the Armenian 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.
Ramsey scored Arsenal's second in first-half stoppage time, the Welshman showing great composure after being put through by another magnificent Ozil pass.
Having flourished going forward in the first half, Arsenal were able to solidify in the second, reducing Milan to long-range efforts.
Wenger said afterwards: "At some stage you need to respond and respond together with a good performance and that's what we did tonight.
"In England we have a strange system. We have a cup final in the middle of the season. We played an opponent in a cup final on the Sunday and then the same opponent on the Thursday. It is like a boxing match - you get knocked down before you have time to get up again.
"When you have these big disappointments you forget quickly that you have qualities. In one week you don't become a bad team or bad player." (© Daily Telegraph, London)