In the end, AC Milan proved to be easier opposition than anyone expected, with Arsenal’s passage to the next round virtually sealed in the first leg at the San Siro.
Milan arrived at the Emirates with it all to do and apart from a few close shaves, some inadequate finishing, a goalkeeping error and a penalty that was an embarrassing gift, Arsenal finished the job with a flattering flourish.
Arsenal lost Koscielny early in proceedings, making way for Callum Chambers but this proved to be an inconvenience rather than a catalyst for the usual collapse. Koscielny hasn’t been the defending colossus of three or four years ago and in all honesty, any of the replacements Wenger decided to use were equal to his current level.
Hakan Calhanoglu’s long-rocket left Ospina clutching at thin air as the Italians opened the scoring, sending a wave of jitters around the Emirates but Arsenal managed to soak up most of the pressure with ease and look for their own opportunities.
Wenger knew that if Arsenal got back on level terms, the tie would effectively be over, such was the scale of the task from the first leg in the Italians own backyard. They were back on terms surprising quickly, when Danny Welbeck pushed through into the box from a Mkhitaryan pass.
There was no threat as such as the ball seemed to be heading into a harmless position where at best, Welbeck could only feed it back into the box for a header or push it out for support from an advancing teammate. Instead, Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez tried to get into a blocking position only to see the normally goal shy Welbeck stagger his stride and fall over.
If there was contact of any kind, it would have been the air between the players and perhaps the turbulence created by one player passing another was enough to send the Arsenal man heading towards the turf. Welbeck looked innocently at the official to the left of the Milan goal line and the ref capitulated in favour of his colleague’s opinion.
The former United striker had managed to sell off a cabbage as a gold brick and having mesmerised the refereeing fraternity, he slotted home the gift and put Arsenal back on course. Luck is an inevitable part of football and whatever decisions had gone against Arsenal this season, they were repaid in full this Thursday with a cherry on top.
Welbeck was on a roll and before the evening was finished, he added a second, after Xhaka had increased the lead by forcing Donnarumma into a classic goalkeeping gaffe. It was a best a speculative effort but Xhaka always hits the ball with conviction and power and the ball had enough on it for the young goalkeeper to slam it into the turf and watch as it spun behind him into the net.
An eye-catching performance by Jack Wilshere was complete when he went to the line, staggered his cross and delivered a beautiful airborne ball into the box for Ramsey. Somehow that effort stayed out only to pop up for the appreciative Welbeck to head in.
Two goals in a game is virtually a six-month haul for the former United man but it will not count for much when Lacazette is fit in a few weeks time. He tends to be better in an England shirt than an Arsenal strip and his call-up for the National side reminds you just how important and irreplaceable Harry Kane is.
So there was much to enjoy but there were still signs that more work needs to be done if Arsenal are to finish with a trophy. The defense, although more robust than usual, still gave away too much space in and outside the box and but for some schoolboy finishing, Milan could have changed the course of the game quite easily.
Xhaka continues to be a yard or two off any advancing player and had he been closer to Calhanoglu, the opening goal for Milan would have simply not happened.
The Gunners need to close down hard on those opportunities against more clinical and efficient sides if they are to advance further and pick up the only trophy they have a realistic chance of winning. In attack, Lacazette will always be the main option and hopefully, the stubborn Wenger will throw caution to the wind and put the Frenchman straight into the attack in place of the hit and miss Welbeck.
Hats off to Englishman, who bagged his first goals in three and a half years of European competition and duped the officials with some footwork that would have registered a very low score on Strictly come dancing. Wenger has a deserved win and the pressure is off for now, but he knows that even after three handsome wins in eight days, there is still a lot to do.
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