Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0
So close to a miracle but Gunners can't clinch quarter-final place
Once again they gave us our money’s worth. Don’t they always? Once again they raised our heartbeats to a gallop. This time, though, Arsenal failed. Just. They could not atone for the sins of the San Siro.
Arsene Wenger’s remarkable, flawed football team have now scored 15 times in their last three games at the Emirates. No wonder the people keep coming.
Here, though, the 16th goal of this remarkable sequence — the one that would have taken this tie to extra time — eluded them. There was to be no miracle.
Four down from a dismal first leg in Italy, Arsenal needed something special. Goals in the first half from Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky and, of course, Robin van Persie ensured that, with 45 minutes remaining, they had every chance of producing it.
Sadly, though, the final act lacked romance. The second half failed to produce another goal and Arsenal are out of the Champions League.
Most unusually, Van Persie — the only consistently bright light of Arsenal’s murky season — will have cause for regret today. Just before the hour last night the Dutchman was presented with a simple chance to draw Arsenal level in the tie after Gervinho’s deflected shot came back to him from the goalkeeper’s legs.
This time, though, he couldn’t score.
His dink from seven yards was repelled by Christian Abbiati’s flailing, desperate arm and Arsenal’s only real opportunity of the second half had gone. Should Van Persie — the most cultured of footballers — just have put his foot hard through the back of the ball? Probably.
Had Arsenal scored at that stage, they surely would have gone on to win. Milan, so dreadful in the first half, would surely have been sunk.
As it was, Milan managed to shed some of the impotency of the opening period to go on to play quite well. Having clearly decided that the best way to stem the tide was to try and score a goal of their own, the Italians were actually the better team in the second half.
What a night this was, though. What a tribute to Wenger’s remarkable powers of motivation that his team came so close. At two down here to Tottenham only 10 days ago, Arsenal’s season seemed over. Since then they have scored 10 times.
Arsenal needed to start well, needed to cause their opponents that flutter of anxiety that comes with early pressure. In the seventh minute the Gunners had the lead and Milan were looking at each other like strangers.
The goal was a frightful moment for the away side, one of many in the first half. Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain — impressive in bursts — took a corner from the left and Koscielny drifted unchecked across at least two Milan defenders to head down into the goal from seven yards out.
On the touchline, Wenger was only moderately excited. He knew how far his team still had to go.
Crucially, though, Milan looked as anxious as Arsenal looked carefree. Coming in to the game with such a big lead, the Italians didn’t know whether to stick or twist. For long spells, they did neither.
Arsenal, sensing their opponents’ hesitancy, kept pressing. Van Persie and Rosicky should have carved out a chance when presented with possession in the 16th minute. Their failure to make the right passing choices was surprising but ultimately didn’t matter as before too long Arsenal were two up and the chase was really on.
This time the danger came from the right as Theo Walcott reached the byline. His low cross really shouldn’t have troubled the esteemed Brazilian defender Thiago Silva but his clearance was weak and landed straight at Rosicky’s feet. A second later the ball was in the bottom corner.
Milan were so poor — as bad as Arsenal had been in the San Siro — that they were already looking frantically for half-time. Time to reorganise and draw breath. They weren’t to get there without further damage, though.
Oxlade-Chamberlain drove down the right in the 44th minute and was sandwiched by Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino as he cut devilishly into the penalty area. Van Persie scored the resulting penalty emphatically with his left foot and it was hard now not to make Arsenal favourites.
Shell-shocked by what had happened, Milan managed to break in first-half injury time and Robinho played Stephan El Shaarawy clear on goal. Had he scored then Arsenal would have needed another three to progress. The shot, though, was so bad it didn’t even strike the side-netting. It summed up Milan’s efforts.
In the second half, however, Arsenal struggled to maintain their remarkable momentum and Milan — perhaps reminded of their responsibilities by coach Massimiliano Allegri — found a little of their true selves.
Robinho played in Zlatan Ibrahimovic only for Wojciech Szczesny to save at his feet and then Urby Emanuelson curled a free-kick over the bar. Soon came Van Persie’s chance. Abbiati will reflect on a terrific double save. Van Persie, though, will be extremely disappointed.
Arsenal’s night fell flat after that. Their legs couldn’t propel them to the ultimate glory and — in truth — Milan looked the more likely scorers in the final 30 minutes.
Behind the goal at one end, an Arsenal fan held a banner aloft from first minute to last. It said simply: ‘We Believe’.
In the end, belief wasn’t quite enough. The mountain proved too high. This, though, was some effort.
Benfica 2-0 Zenit St Petersburg
Maxi Pereira and Nelson Oliveira goals see the Portuguese side into last eight of Champions League
The hosts turned in a great display against the Russians and were able to overturn a one-goal deficit to go through in the Uefa competition
Benfica are through to the last eight of the Champions League thanks to a 2-0 victory against Zenit St Petersburg at the Estadio da Luz, progressing 4-3 on aggregate.
A goal from Maxi Pereira just seconds before half-time and another from Nelson Oliveira in injury time allowed Jorge Jesus' men to seal passage into the quarter-finals, having been rewarded for a combative display as they dominated from the first whistle.
The mach started out at a high pace, with Benfica enjoying the majority of possession in the first minutes, as expected.
Zenit had more players in midfield and more presence in this area than in the first leg in Russia, but that was not too much of a surprise, as Luciano Spalletti's side were unwilling to take any risks.
For the hosts, Axel Witsel was deployed in centre of the park as the replacement of suspended Pablo Aimar, and he filled the Argentine's shoes almost perfectly.
In the 14th minute, the Belgian, without too much room to operate, picked out a pass on the right to Bruno Cesar, who tried his luck from the edge of the box, but Vyacheslav Malafeev parried the ball away to safety.
Benfica were in control of proceedings and they came close to scoring again five minutes later, when Maxi Pereira played a one-two with Nicolas Gaitan and, from a tight angle, sent in a low shot which went across the face of the goal, with no one on hand to tap home.
Zenit looked happy just to watch Benfica play, but the visitors almost broke the deadlock in the 42nd minute, when Artur and Luisao were both unable to clear away the ball, which fell into the path of Roman Shirokov. The Russian midfielder aimed his shot at the bottom right corner, but Artur was able to save on the second attempt.
It was just a minor scare for Benfica, though, as the hosts broke the deadlock in added time. Witsel had his shot from inside the box saved by Malafeev, but on the rebound the Belgian produced a marvellous backheel to Maxi Pereira, who slotted home from close range.
Zenit looked much livelier after the break, when Spalletti introduced Danko Lazovic in Vladimir Bystrov's place, but while the Russians got closer to Artur's goal, they were still unable to create significant danger.
Oscar Cardozo had the chance to put the game to bed in the 67th minute when he picked up a misplaced pass, but with only Malafeev to beat, the Paraguayan sent his effort wide of the goal.
As the game wore on, Benfica tried to hold on to the lead, with Zenit unable to create the hosts any sort of problem.
But the home side were still able to double their lead in injury time, as Nelson Oliveira sent the ball past Malafeev after being played through by Bruno Cesar, albeit with the aid of a deflection.
It was a much-deserved victory for Benfica, who were in control of the match from start to finish. The Aguias will learn their next opponent on March 16, when the draw for the next stage is made.