Arsenal restored their pride with a committed display even if the Gunners' bench lacked real quality
As ashamed as they felt to be so thoroughly outclassed in Italy, Arsenal earned the right to feel proud of themselves by making the impossible seem eminently possible. This is not the best XI Arsène Wenger has ever put together by any stretch of the imagination but they proved themselves capable of something memorable for the third time in as many games. Again they showed courage, and discipline, to try to haul themselves out of a difficult situation. Even making this tie interesting was an achievement. As Wenger pointed out before the game, they somehow had to strike the right balance between attacking and defending. The only pity was that they did not have the attacking reinforcements from the bench to really crank it up. The out-of-favour Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-young were the best they could do.
One of the oddest consequences of being in such command from the first leg is the difficulty for a team to psych themselves up for the task. That does not excuse Milan's extraordinary sluggishness. If Arsenal, as Kieran Gibbs suggested, were guilty of not "turning up" at San Siro, the same accusation could be thrown at Milan here. Their defensive lapses were extremely poor for all the goals that gave Arsenal a 3-0 half-time lead. Inept marking from a corner, uncharacteristic sloppiness from Thiago Silva, and a clumsy Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sandwich put Milan in a position of anxiety they could barely have imagined having doled out that hammering three weeks ago. Van Bommel's early booking was another advantage for Arsenal, as he could ill afford any more reckless tackles. The question of whether this Milan team could be a contender and trouble the Spanish favourites got a pretty resounding answer here: not this time.
Wenger confessed before the game that he did not know what he would do if the Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky did not recover from an injury niggle to make the team. A player who promised so much when he signed from Borussia Dortmund in 2006, his Arsenal career has stuttered, mainly due to some horrendous injury problems. In the past couple of weeks he has shone, regaining the momentum to play with great personality, drive and guile in midfield. Having scored his first Premier League goal in two years to crown an action-packed display against Tottenham, he carried that form over with another performance full of purpose. His opportunist strike, for Arsenal's second goal, was deserved. A word, too, for Alex Song, whose exemplary display anchoring the Arsenal midfield underlines why his contract extension must be priority after Van Persie.
Although he was selected in a more central role than anticipated, contrary to some of the pre-match speculation the teenager Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was deployed in a defensive midfield role, rather than as a playmaker. It had echoes of the education Wenger wanted Jack Wilshere to experience when he broke through, but was all the same a giant call to make in a game such as this against Mark van Bommel and Antonio Nocerino. Oxlade-Chamberlain was sensible in his positioning, tidy in possession, and able to demonstrate his technique with the beautifully whipped in cross for Laurent Koscielny to head in Arsenal's first goal. But it was hard to escape the feeling he was being reigned in, that he could make more of a difference. Then came the moment when he escaped the leash with a searing run into the box to win the penalty for Robin van Persie to make the score 3-0. The former Southampton player has come a long, long way since making his debut as a substitute 62 minutes into that infamous 8-2 thumping at Old Trafford.
The Italian keeper Christian Abbiati had been watching from the bench the night Milan surrendered a 4-1 lead at Deportivo La Coruña to suffer the consequences of the most dramatic turnaround in Champions League history. He, above all, deserves a pat on the back from his team-mates. A couple of important saves (added to the two fine efforts to ensure Van Persie did not score an away goal at San Siro) were vital. Milan were surprisingly open. For an Italian team to go away from home and play with an attacking trident hardly known for their capacity to track back in Zlatan Ibrahimovic flanked by Robinho and the youngster Stephan El Shaarawy was brave in a way. But it turned out to be a bad move, as a more conservative approach might have been more frustrating to Arsenal. As it was, there was not much of a barrier. The midfield area – where Wenger's team had no option but to experiment – was afforded far too much time and space to dictate the game. By all accounts the Milan coach was cross that it finished only 4-0 in the opener at San Siro. Now we know why.