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Arsenal have maintained for years that they were a top club just one or two pieces away from glory, but Wednesday's loss in Milan went a long way towards dispelling that myth.
Arsenal are now very much out of the UEFA Champions League, provided they don't pull off the miracle to end all miracles at the Emirates Stadium. AC Milan were better than their opponents in just about every conceivable way on Wednesday night, obliterating them in a 4-0 romp. The pitch conditions at the San Siro weren't favorable to the Gunners, but they certainly aren't an excuse for terrible defensive mistakes and a lifeless performance.
It didn't take long for things to go badly for Arsenal. Kevin-Prince Boateng scored an absolutely stunning goal to put the Rossoneri ahead just 15 minutes in, taking a ball off of his chest and hitting a perfect volley into the back of the net off of the underside of the crossbar from 12 yards out.
Milan would take a 2-0 lead into halftime, scoring their second in the 38th minute off of some terrible defending. Zlatan Ibrahimović created the chance on a great run down the left, barely keeping himself onside as he ran onto a ball over the top of the defense. He played a cross into the center of the box for Robinho to nod in, and he was unmarked as he easily doubled his team's lead.
Laurent Koscielny was injured shortly afterwards and was substituted off for Johan Djourou just before halftime. Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen would make up the second of Arsenal's three central defense partnerships on the evening. All three conceded goals.
Arsene Wenger opted to start the match with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench, despite the conventional wisdom that fast wide players do the most damage against Milan. With his team down 2-0 at halftime, he took off his other fast wide player, Theo Walcott, and brought on Thierry Henry.
Before anyone would have a chance to see how that worked out, Milan went up 3-0. Ibrahimović set up Robinho for the shooting opportunity again, though this one wasn't quite as clear cut. That is, before Vermaelen fell down, giving Robinho a clear path to shoot into. After 49 minutes, Arsenal led 3-0.
In the 65th minute, Arsenal created their first shot on target in the match. They would hit the target three more times, but this was far and away their best chance. On a well-worked counter, Henry flicked the ball into the path of Robin van Persie, who unloaded on a shot to the back post with his left foot. Christian Abbiati quickly got across and got a hand to the ball, pushing it aside to preserve the clean sheet.
A minute later, Arsenal's third central defense partnership was formed. Oxlade-Chamberlain finally made an appearance, replacing Kieran Gibbs. This moved Vermaelen over to left back and Alex Song back to central defense.
That partnership would give up their goal via a penalty kick. In the 78th minute, Djourou made a tackle on Ibrahimović that wouldn't have been out of place at a rugby or American football match. The referee correctly pointed to the spot and Ibrahimović converted to make it 4-0 and complete the rout.
If any good comes out of this, it's that Arsenal can now focus on finishing fourth in the Premier League and trying to win the FA Cup. This Champions League tie is over before it heads to London.
And somehow this match has turned into even more of a disaster for Arsenal. AC Milan break, and eventually Robinho finds Zlatan Ibrahimović on the left. He saunters into the penalty area, dances past Johan Djourou, and is then brought down by the Swiss international, who basically wrestles him to the ground to pick up a yellow card and concede a clear penalty.
Ibrahimović steps up to take the spot kick, and despite the fact that Wojciech Szczesny guesses the right way and gets a hand to the ball, the ball's struck too well and it goes straight in at the right corner anyway. So that's 4-0 and Milan have been full value for their money despite cruising thought most of the second half. If there's any bad news, it's that Massimo Ambrosini won't be able to participate in the second leg after picking up a yellow card ... but with a four-goal lead, it seems unlikely that he'll care.
Can Alex Song defend Zlatan Ibrahimović any better than the rest of Arsenal's back line? Er ... no. The Cameroonian finds himself isolated against the Swede, who's running at him at full pace, and he can do little better than throw in a clusmy challenge that brings the big man down and earns Song a yellow card from Viktor Kassai. Fortunately for the Gunners, Milan don't really do much with their opportunity, the ball eventually rolling out for the free kick.
The hosts actually look a bit bored at this point. They can cut through their guests' defence with minimal effort, but that's more effort than not doing anything, and they've already got a 3-0 lead. Why bother doing anything but defend? The Robin van Persie shot, well saved by Christian Abbiati, remains Arsenal's only chance, and there are only 15 minutes left of this match. Things aren't really going well for the Gunners today, and unless something changes, there's not much point even playing the return fixture.
Hey, it's a chance for Arsenal! That's the visitor's best moment of the night, and it comes when substitute Thierry Henry and captain Robin van Persie link up for the first time. The on-loan striker does brilliantly to flick an Alex Song pass away from the defenders and into his strike partner's pass, and van Persie's effort -- his first meaningful touch of the game -- is bulleted straight toward the bottom corner.
Christian Abbiati's equal to the effort, however, getting down to his left to save at full stretch. He's fired up about it too, as well he should be after a great save. Arsenal are starting to look a little happier, with Milan relaxing, and Arsene Wenger finally makes the move everyone's been waiting for: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in for Kieran Gibbs, which is going to result in Song dropping into the back line to cover. It's probably too little too late -- Chamberlain should have been on from the beginning -- but at least it's a positive move. Milan, meanwhile, swap goalscorer Kevin-Prince Boateng for Massimo Ambrosini. It's still 3-0 to the hosts at the San Siro.
There's another great chance for Milan, and it comes straight from an Arsenal corner!
Kieran Gibbs does OK against Philippe Mexés to win the set piece, but Christian Abbiati's punch is picked up by Robinho and he releases Urby Emanuelson to surge forward. Eventually they work the ball out to Luca Antonini, who's powering forward and kept onside by Johan Djourou for no apparent reason, but the left back can't get enough on his shot and it bobbles rather aimlessly past Wojciech Szczesny's left post.
A few minutes later, Robinho makes Gibbs look like a 12-year-old by ghosting straight past the erstwhile defender and bearing down on Szczesny's goal. The Brazilian probably should have crossed the ball, but he was looking for his hat trick and made the wrong decision in going for goal.
Mexés, meanwhile, picked up a booking for tangling with Tomas Rosicky about 30 yards from goal, but Thomas Vermaelen's resultant free kick completely failed to trouble Abbiati. That's basically been the story of the game so far.
Milan don't seem to be content with a 3-0 lead against Arsenal here (do they remember the last time they were winning by three against an English side?), and the hosts remain well and truly on the attack at the San Siro. Thierry Henry, brought on by Arsene Wenger at halftime to shake things up, has yet to had any impact whatsoever, and although Arsenal are seeing a little more of the ball they're still yet to present any real threat to Christian Abbiati's goal.
Kevin-Prince Boateng comes very close to making it 4-0 after an absolutely superb crossfield pass from catches left back Kieran Gibbs out of position only for the Ghanaian to completely miss his attempted volley, and you'd have to bet on the home side to score again unless Arsenal do something about the fact that they're being dominated in midfield and unable to track Milan's forwards. This has been an embarrassing performance so far.
We're back off and running in the second half here at the San Siro, where so far AC Milan have been absolutely stomping on poor Arsenal. Kevin-Prince Boateng opened the scoring fifteen minutes in and Robinho made things worse twenty minutes later with a goal that could easily have ended this whole tie as a contest. Hopefully Arsene Wenger's had some words in the changing room, because they're going to need to do much better in the next 45 minutes in order to have the return leg in London maintain any semblance of meaningfulness.
Arsenal's solution? Thierry Henry. Alright then. The Gunners have gone to a 4-4-2, but once again it's Milan doing all of the attacking so far in the second half, with Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic still asking some very difficult questions of the Arsenal defence... and yeah, there's a goal.
It's unfortunate for the Gunners this time - there's an appalling giveaway in midfield to launch a Milan attack. Eventually, Ibrahimovic plays a defendable ball across the face of the box, Thomas Vermaelen slips over, and Robinho can lash home from 18 yards. It's a tidy finish into the bottom corner, but if Vermaelen had remained on his feet, that would never have happened. 3-0 to the hosts.
Whether the San Siro's terrible pitch was an accident or an intentional dirty trick, it's worked wonders for the home side so far. The odd pitch that has perfect grass in the center and all kinds of problems on the wings is working out perfectly for Milan, who are controlling the run of play and forcing Arsenal into their game. At halftime, they lead the Gunners 2-0, and that lead is well deserved.
Things actually got off to a terrible start for Milan, when Clarence Seedorf picked up an injury, perhaps contributed to by their terrible pitch. Urby Emmanuelson came on in the 12th minute, and Milan didn't seem phased by the switch at all. Three minutes later, they had their opening goal.
And what an absolute stunner it was. Kevin-Prince Boateng showed exactly what Milan have been missing while he's been out with an injury, putting a stellar volley past Wojciech Szczesny. After the Arsenal keeper gave possession away to Milan with a bad kick, the ball was set to Boateng, who took a brilliant touch off his chest before hitting a volley off the underside of the crossbar from 12 yards out.
Their second goal came in the 38th minute on a great counter attack. Bakary Sagna didn't step up fast enough on a ball over the top to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who just barely stayed onside as he took off on a run down Milan's left. He made himself space along the byline and hit a cross for Robinho, who nodded it into the back easily. Laurent Koscielny didn't move at all and allowed Robinho to score easily.
Then, to add injury to insult, Koscielny picked up a knock and had to come off just before the stroke of halftime. Johan Djourou was his replacement. There was another scary injury moment in stoppage time, as Luca Antonini and Szczesny had a nasty collision on the edge of the penalty area. It wouldn't be terribly surprising if one or both of them didn't come out o start the second half.
By just about every standard, it's been a poor first half for Arsenal. They can't contain Ibrahimovic, they're not creating quality chances, they're down 2-0 and one of their best players has been injured. Arsene Wenger is going to have to make some serious adjustments in the locker room -- and perhaps give his side a quality hairdryer -- to get the Gunners back into this tie.
After AC Milan's second goal, they nearly get another with Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming within inches of getting on the end of a cross swung in by Kevin-Prince Boateng. The reason that he doesn't is because he's being pulled back by Bacary Sagna, but despite protests from the big striker, no penalty is forthcoming. It probably won't matter too much - it looks like there are more goals in this for the hosts.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are forced into a change, with Johan Djourou coming off for the limping Laurent Koscielny. It doesn't help much against Ibrahimovic, and the Swede once again rips open the Gunners defence with a pass to Boateng who can only hit the side netting. A few minutes later, Milan come close again, with Wojciech Szczesny engaging Luca Antonini in a very brave challenge, one he gets a knee in the face for his troubles for. Antonini picks up a yellow card for that, which was a little bit harsh.
And here's halftime. Milan 2-0 Arsenal, and the scoreline is entirely fair based on the first 45 minutes of play. Arsene Wenger has a lot of work to do here.
Laurent Koscielny can't defend Zlatan Ibrahimovic at all and there's some bad blood between the pair now as things get increasingly physical, Ibrahimovic complaining of an eye-poke from the Arsenal centre back after Viktor Kassai had once again somewhat dubiously adjudged the Swede to have committed a foul.
And then we're at 2-0. Bacary Sagna keeps Ibrahimovic onside (maybe) as he surges down the left flank, and while the defence protests the linesman's call a simple cross to Robinho results in a goal. The Brazilian really didn't have much to do - the ball was put on a plate for him about three yards out, and he made no mistake in guiding it into the bottom corner. Not a whole lot Wojciech Szczesny could have done about that one.
That Robinho goal makes up for an early mistake from the former Real Madrid man. A few minutes prior to scoring, he managed to rob Thomas Vermaelen to create a two-on-one attack only to overrun the ball and allow Koscielny to cut things out. They won't mind that error too much now - Milan are completely in charge of this tie.
After a corner, Arsenal are finally able to settle down a bit, keeping possession for long enough to draw a loud chorus of whistles from the home fans. However, they don't look especially threatening with the ball, and their eventual push through the centre is easily cleared up by Thiago Silva, who launches a counterattack.
The condition of the flanks is causing play to become congested in the centre, which is obviously something that Milan will be happy with, but it's not entirely favouring the home side. Both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Urby Emanuelson have lost possession thanks to odd bobbles while playing wide so far, but on balance you'd have to imaging that that's a small price to pay for keeping the Arsenal wide threat at bay.
Milan are still putting plenty of pressure on the back line, with Robinho trying his luck with passes to Ibrahimovic (offside) and Antonio Nocerino (overhit) that would have caused real problems had they connected. Arsenal are not defending well, and they're going to have to force their hosts to answer some questions of their own soon. If not, a second goal seems almost inevitable.
AC Milan are threatening to run riot at the San Siro, and Arsenal's defence appears to be completely unable to cope with their hosts' midfield. Antonio Nocerino is left unmarked near the edge of the penalty area and blasts in a shot that doesn't miss by too much, bouncing off a stanchion and hitting the back of the net from the wrong side, which made the home fans rather happy for a little while.
A few minutes later and things nearly go from pad to worse for the Gunners, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic - who's been in an unstoppable mood so far - nearly seizing on a mixup between Thomas Vermaelen and Wojciech Szczesny to get a free run in on goal. The Swede shrugs off Vermaelen to get to the ball, and Arsenal are rather fortunate that referee Viktor Kassai decided that Ibrahimovic had fouled the defender during his run. Laurent Koscielny replies with a header on target from a free kick, but it's easily saved. Still 1-0 to Milan here.
Good grief, that was brilliant. Former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng has just made Arsenal's day rather painful, opening the scoring at the San Siro with a wonderful volley. Wojciech Szczesny's at fault - his kick gives possession straight to Milan, and the ball is lofted forward to Boateng, making a run in the right side of the penalty area.
It's a difficult take, but the Ghana international controls the ball with his chest before slamming in a monstrous volley that flies over Szczesny before dipping just enough to hit the bottom of the crossbar and slam into the back of the net. The ball was hit so hard that it bounced straight out of the goal, but there was no doubt about it being legitimate, and so Milan lead 1-0. Arsenal's defence, which is supposedly at something like full strength, is being given a torrid time here, although their attack is looking ok.
Well that was an awkward moment for Arsenal. Mikel Arteta, usually so reliable, gave the ball away in the middle of the pitch and Milan are able to surge forwards. Most of the danger is averted when an attempted pass by Zlatan Ibrahimovic goes a little bit wrong, but Ignazio Abate's cross ends up getting deflected, causing Wojciech Szczesny some major problems as it flies into the side netting for a corner.
Meanwhile, veteran midfielder Clarance Seedorf appears to have hurt himself, and Milan warmed up Urby Emanuelson in case he can't continue. He tries to soldier on but ultimately is forced off the pitch in the 12th minute, and Emanuelson takes his place. Presumably he'll play deep as Kevin-Prince Boateng pushes forwards.
Emanuelson nearly announces his arrival with a bang after getting on the end of Ibrahimovic's flick in the penalty box, but the midfielder's first time flick is well wide of Szczesny's post. Laurent Koscielny isn't doing the best of job in stopping Ibrahimovic causing damage just yet.
We're underway at the San Siro, where AC Milan host Arsenal in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 tie. The major surprise here is the absence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Arsenal's starting lineup - the Gunners are going to have to rely on the erratic Theo Walcott to exploit Milan's lack of wide play.
Anyway, the hosts kick us off in their traditional red and black stripes, going on the attack immediately after a series of lucky breaks gets the ball to Robinho on the right flank. Eventually, the play ends when Zlatan Ibrahimovic's attempted lob over the centre of the defence sees Clarence Seedorf caught offside. That was a pretty good offside trap, but the way the Swede was able to bring down the ball twenty yards from goal will have worried Wenger.
Tomas Rosicky responds with a long-range shot having cut in from the left flank. It doesn't worry Christian Abiatti overmuch, but, Walcott makes his presence felt when he cuts through the Milan defence and nearly plays in Ramsey. It's probably important to note that the groundskeepers appear to have turned the pitch around the touchline into some sort of heron habitat, so we might not see too much in the way of wing play today. Sneaky.
Zenit St. Petersburg saw off Benfica 3-2 after a fascinating match at the Petrovski Stadium. The Portuguese side had only lost once this season - to Maritimo in the Taca de Portugal - and Zenit have been badly hit by injuries recently, so going into the game there didn't seem to be much hope that the hosts would make too much of a fight of things. However, they were actually the better side throughout, and were probably unlucky to have conceded twice.
Benfica didn't start at all brightly but managed to score with their first attack, with stand-in goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov spilling a free kick from Oscar Cardozo right into the path of Maxi Pereira to give the visitors a lead against the run of play. It didn't last long - Roman Shirokov guided a beautiful volley past Artur and into the far corner just seven minutes later, and Zenit would claim a 2-1 lead in the second half with a goal that deserves to be shown on highlight reels for years to come.
Things didn't look particularly promising when the ball came to striker Alexander Kerzhakov near the corner flag, but he met it was a lovely backheel flick that dropped straight to Vladimir Bistrov. He launched a first-time cross into the Benfica box, where substitute Sergei Semak wasn't in great position, but finished beautifully anyway with another backheel, guiding the ball into the net with Artur helpless.
Following Zenit's second, play got a bit chippy and it looked as though the match would end 2-1. Benfica were frustrated with the way things were going and Pablo Aimar, who came on as a substitute following Rodrigo's injury, was probably the most vexed of all after incurring a booking that will see him ruled out of the second leg. His crime appeared to be not committing handball, so one can understand his confusion at referee Jonas Eriksson's decision.
Eriksson wasn't having a great day, but it was nowhere near as calamitous as Yuri Zhevnov's. With just three minutes to go and the end in sight, the goalkeeper made a compete hash of a shot from Nicolas Gaitan. The ball ended up loose in front of him, which was bad enough in a situation where Benfica players were lurking all round, but Zhevnov's attempted recovery compounded the error - he pushed the ball straight to Oscar Cardozo, who was only too delighted to make it 2-2.
It looked as though Benfica's amazing unbeaten record would continue, but then they too were undone by a catastrophic error. Maxi Pereira, who had score the first goal, inexplicably attempted to clear a lofted ball into the box with his wrong foot. Instead of getting the ball away, the fullback instead ended up passing the ball straight to Shirokov, who was only too happy to round Artur and restore the hosts' lead. Within the span of two minutes, Benfica had levelled and then conceded.
Injury time failed to live up to the drama of the last few minutes of normal time, and the match ended 3-2 to Zenit. It's an interesting scoreline and one that might not be enough at the Estadio da Luz - Benfica do have two away goals, so a 1-0 or 2-1 win for the Portuguese will see them through in Lisbon. If not by the two mistakes from Zhevnov, Zenit could be home and try. Instead, they've just set up a fascinating match in three weeks' time.
It's a heavyweight match-up in the round of 16 as Arsenal square off against AC Milan, but is it really a battle of heavyweights? Sure, it's two big clubs, but does anyone really think that either club can really compete for the Champions League title? Exactly.
Kevin-Prince Boateng will drop a little deeper than usual today and play alongside Mark van Bommel and Antonion Nocerino, or at least that is what we are told. Still, MIlan are exposed on the wings, not that Arsenal appear to have any intention of taking advantage of that. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain isn't starting for the Gunners, erasing their best hope for stretching the match wide and actually making something of that width. Theo Walcott only knows how to do the former.
Benfica have struggled in the early going against Zenit St. Petersburg thanks primarily to rather appalling conditions at the Petrovski Stadiu. It's absolutely frigid out there and the pitch looks like a battlefield from World War I, and the Portuguese are having trouble putting together the flowing passing moves that they're known for. As a result, Zenit are generally having the better of play against their more fancied opponents.
That didn't stop the hosts going down against the run of play in the 20th minute, however, as Yuri Zhevnov failed to deal with an Oscar Cardoze free kick, pushing it straight to Maxi Pereira for a straightforward tap-in. That lead didn't last long, however - Roman Shirikov brought Zenit straight back into things with a lovely cushioned volley into Artur's bottom corner seven minutes later.
As the half continued, Zenit still looked the more likely side to score, although by and large the Benfica defence held firm in front of Artur's goal. It was still 1-1 when Jonas Eriksson blew for halftime, but that doesn't mean the visitors haven't suffered further - they've had to replace Rodrigo, injured in a challenge with Bruno Alves, with veteran playmaker Pablo Aimar.
We're nearly under way in the early Champions League fixture, where Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg will take on Group C winners Benfica. The Portuguese side would be a handful for anyone, but Zenit are in a particularly difficult position with a host of injuries wiping out key players. Danny is out until October, and left back Domenico Criscito is also gone. At least Roman Shirokov is fit to play. Benfica, meanwhile, are at more or less full strength, and they'll be looking to kill this tie off before the return leg in Portugal.
Zenit St. Petersburg starting lineup (4-3-3): Yuri Zhevnov; Tomas Hubocan, Bruno Alves, Nicolas Lombaerts, Aleksandr Anyukov; Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov, Konstantin Zyryanov; Viktor Fayzulin, Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Maksim Kanunnikov.
Substitutes from: Dmitri Borodin, Aleksandar Lukovic, Igor Cheminava, Alessandro Rosina, Szabolcs Huszti, Sergei Semak, Vladimir Bystrov.
Benfica starting lineup (4-2-3-1): Artur, Emerson, Luisao, Ezequiel Garay, Maxi Pereira; Nemanja Matic, Axel Witsel; Nicolas Gaitan, Bruno Cesar, Rodrigo; Oscar Cardozo.
Substitutes from: Eduardo, Miguel Vitor, Jardel, Nolito, Pablo Aimar, Nelson Oliveira, Javier Saviola .
Zenit St. Petersburg has a long injury list, as they welcome Benfica to town for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16.
Arsenal travel to take on AC Milan at the San Siro. Do they have what it takes to get a good result against the Italian champions?
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