Premature Arrogance Teaches Lesson
By now, most Arsenal fans know about Milan executive Massimiliano Mirabelli’s comments following the announcement of the matchups for the Europa League last 16 in which he seemed to believe his team’s progression to the quarterfinals was all but guaranteed. His words have become a source of much derision following Milan’s embarrassing 5-1 capitulation over 2 legs, a more than fair result given the balance of play.
Though they will never admit to being affected by his words, the players were clearly galvanised on the pitch, motivated to prove their doubters wrong and to halt their 4 match losing streak from 2 weeks ago. Milan may be running roughshod through Serie A right now following their early season struggles, but Arsenal just showed Europe exactly what that means when facing a Premier League side. The Gunners were the better conditioned team playing the better brand of football, and even though the traveling Milan fans proudly serenaded their team for all 90 minutes, their return journey to European competition after 5 seasons away was officially over.
The best performances from Thursday’s match came from the brilliant Arsenal midfield consisting of the central trio of Granit Xhaka, Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, flanked by Mesut Ozil and Mhkitaryan in more advanced, creative roles. Milan came out with a more aggressive defensive plan to put pressure on the Gunner higher up the pitch in their own end, forcing them to play through their lines. Given the struggles in North London recently, particularly for the defence when under duress, it was likely the right move for Gennaro Gattuso, but his players’ execution left a lot to be desired. Instead of forcing Arsenal into mistakes, they instead stretched their lines just enough to give the Gunners a path through their midfield and into the Milan end with little resistance.
Since Jack Wilshere joined Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka in the first-choice Arsenal midfield, the Gunners have found a new balance between attacking threat and defensive responsibility. Though there is still a long way to go before declaring the Gunners’ recurring season-long issues over, having Wilshere there to add an extra outlet to the defence during build up play makes a massive difference. Wilshere was tremendous on the dribble, and seemed to get better and better as the match went on. Ramsey and Xhaka continued with their complimentary partnership as the former was his usual non-stop running self, while Xhaka, ever the eye of the storm, kept the Gunners ticking over with his pinpoint passes and defensive responsibility.
Quarter Finals Still Ospina Territory?
His team’s switched-on response to Milan’s opening goal rendered it irrelevant, but David Ospina probably should have done better on Hakan Calhanoglu’s long range attempt. The goal was extremely well taken, but it was yet another demonstration of the Columbian’s limitations in goal. He simply does not have the length or the anticipation to make the more difficult saves that are routine for a player like Petr Cech. He has phenomenal reflexes, but without the same command of his area and intelligence for the position as his Czech teammate, he has the “ability” to turn a routine action into a cardiac even for supporters.
As the Carabao Cup Final proved, Ospina can be badly beaten by quality opposition. As the Europa League has become the Gunners’ number 1 priority after falling off the pace in the Premier League top 4 chase, it is fair to wonder whether or not Petr Cech should assume his place between the sticks to boost Arsenal’s chances of winning
the Europa League. He has been in the biggest moments of European competition and come out on top, and his presence is a calming one for this current Arsenal side. Arsene Wenger has publicly promised Ospina that he would get all of the team’s cup matches, but sometimes a manager must value what is best for his team more than a promise he made to his backup goalkeeper.
One In, One Out For The Quarter Finals?
One of the biggest pieces of news this week in the day before Arsenal was due to take on Milan was that Alexandre Lacazette had returned to light training following his minor knee operation last month. Danny Welbeck has been surprisingly competent in his stead, leading the line and scoring in both legs of the Milan tie, but he is not nearly the finisher that Lacazette is. Though the Frenchman still has at least 2 weeks until he is back to match fitness, his return is a welcome sight for fans growing uneasy at the prospect of having Welbeck as the only available striker heading into the most important matches of the season for the club.
Unfortunately for the Gunners, news broke early Thursday that Aaron Ramsey would be having a minor surgery on his balky hamstring, in an attempt to correct a recurring issue. He will be forced to miss the China Cup next week with his Wales national teammates, but this is not the worst news for Arsenal fans who are always tied in knots whenever their fragile midfielder plays for his country. It is unclear exactly how long Ramsey will be out for, but typically for an athlete it can take a minimum of 3-4 weeks before returning to full match fitness following an operation of that nature. Given the way Ramsey has played this season, he will be dearly missed, particularly if he is not back in time for the Europa League quarter finals, but Mohammed Elneny has been solid when deputising for the Welshman this season. Should Arsenal advance beyond the next round, the team should be approaching full-strength just in time for the last two rounds of the competition.
8 Years Since Last European Quarter Final and One Team to Avoid
With Thursday’s victory over Milan, Arsenal advanced passed the round of 16 in European competition for the first time since 2010. One year before Jack Wilshere announced his arrival to the world against Barcelona, the Gunners drew Porto in the round of 16 of the Champions League, demolishing the Portuguese club 6-2 on aggregate. They would eventually lose to Barcelona in the next round, and they have not made it beyond the first elimination round of 16 since. Even though Arsenal are competing in the Europa League this season, it has not eliminated their chance of drawing an extremely tough matchup in the semi final after getting CSKA Moscow in the quarter final, as Atletico Madrid remain the favourites to win the competition. Arsenal will be hoping to avoid the experienced and talented La Liga side in the semi final, as they are well drilled in combatting the sort of attractive football that Arsenal play. Should they both manage to survive, an Arsenal v Atletico Madrid Final would be an incredible showcase for the Europa League. For now, however, the Gunners are happy with an easier opponent to pave their way for advancement, at least until all key players are back healthy.