There are a number of very tasty looking Champions League ties ready to be played out over the next couple of days. Roma v Real Madrid looks set to be a wonderful game, Manchester United v Lyon could be a good one as well while Sevilla v Fenerbache looks set to dish out some serious excitement. But even then, none of them compares to the spectacle that Milan v Arsenal will put on at the San Siro later tonight.
The contest is so evenly balanced and the teams so evenly matched that there is just no way anyone who enjoys a good football match will want to miss it. Unless, of course, they support one of the other six teams in action at the same time tonight.
Arsenal put in a fine showing at home in the first leg but were unable to get the goal their dominant performance deserved when Emmanuel Adebayor’s late header crashed against the bar with just seconds remaining. That miss as well as a host of others means that despite Milan’s subdued effort at Emirates Stadium, they will start as favourites to qualify for the quarter-finals. And deservedly so, too; the Italian club are the current holders of the competition and have in their ranks the most experienced side in Europe as well best player going around in world football in Brazilian attacker Kaka. Add to that the likes of Pato, Filippo Inzaghi and Alberto Gilardino and it’s clear that Milan have a side that can not only stop their opponents from scoring, but get a few at the other end as well.
Arsene Wenger spoke yesterday about the importance of his side maintaining the right balance between defensive solidarity and attacking instinct, and Arsenal’s ability to find that balance will be the key to their chances of qualification. The importance of the away goal cannot be understated – indeed, if Wenger’s side do happen to get it then they will more than likely get through – but it should not become the obsession that it was for a Manchester United side who were outplayed so thoroughly by the Italian side at the San Siro last season.
The advantage that Arsenal have over the Manchester United side that lost to Milan is a far superior defensive outfit. In the middle, William Gallas has played some of the best football of his career this season and become the type of leader that Arsenal has wanted since Tony Adams retired all those years ago. His partner Philippe Senderos appears to be made for the slower pace of the European stage, a tendency outlined by the fact that his best performance of the season came in the first leg against Milan a fortnight ago.
On the flanks are Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna, who have the energy to push forward all day as well as the defensive technique to cope if Milan decide to turn up the heat. Looking at United’s defence against the same opponents last season – John O’Shea, Wes Brown, a not-quite-match-fit Nemanja Vidic and Gabriel Heinze – and you can see the obvious advantage that this Arsenal side will take into the game over the current Premier League champions.
Flamini & Adebayor the keys
Adding to the defensive solidity is Mathieu Flamini, who has been without a doubt the club’s best player this season. Although Wenger has stressed that his side will not man-mark the brilliant Kaka there’s little question that most of Flamini’s work will centre around the Brazilian. If he has a good game then it will make a huge difference, and given the consistency he has shown so far this season you wouldn’t put it past him.
If defence is one of the keys that will allow Arsenal to unlock Milan, then getting an away goal is certainly the other. There are a host of players who could get; Cesc Fabregas, Alexandr Hleb, Nicklas Bendtner if he starts, even Theo Walcott off the bench. But the man who will want it the most and the man who will be most likely to get it is Emmanuel Adebayor. Although the Togolese striker has never scored in the Champions League it would be a wonderful time for him to break that duck, especially considering his glaring miss in the first leg. And although he is struggling a little bit for form at the moment he showed enough against Milan a fortnight ago to keep Alessandro Nesta and Co as well as Carlo Ancelotti on their toes.
So, who is going to qualify? It is, of course, a difficult question and one that may be answered in the first half-hour of the contest. If the game remains goalless then it’s anyone’s for the taking. However, if Milan score first and score early, you have to fancy them; Arsenal will be forced to attack and if that happens then the likes of Kaka will become extremely dangerous. If Milan do get an early goal then I do fear a repeat of the Manchester United match from last season.
If Arsenal score first and score early, then it will take a huge effort from Milan to pull them back. To score two goals against a team as physically fit as Arsenal has proven to be an incredibly difficult task this season, especially when Wenger’s side have taken the lead. Even at home I wouldn’t fancy Milan fighting back to qualify if Arsenal do get the first goal.
Whatever happens, you’d be a fool to miss this because it’s going to be one hell of a contest. Come on Arsenal!
What do you think?
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