Arsenal may have temporarily saved their season after taking a sensational 2-0 first-leg lead over AC Milan in the of their Europa League last-16 clash at the San Siro.
Having lost the Carabao Cup final to Manchester City and on a run of four successive defeats, including a 2-1 Premier League reverse at Brighton last weekend – which leaves them 13 points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham – the Europa League may be the last chance for Arsene Wenger’s team to reach next season’s Champions League.
And after weathering an early storm, the inconsistent Gunners stunned the hosts, going 2-0 up before the interval with goals from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey.
AS IT HAPPENED: AC Milan v Arsenal
The Gunners began the game playing predominately on the break and those tactics paid off in style after 15 minutes – thanks to a large dollop of luck.
A clever, lofted pass from Mesut Ozil picked out Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the hosts’ penalty area. The Armenian chested it down, rounded defender Davide Calabria and fired goalwards, the ball finding the roof of the net via a wicked deflection, putting the Gunners 1-0 up.
Milan, who had not conceded in a month before the opener, could easily have had a penalty just before that, when Turkish striker Hakan Calhanoglu was impeded by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, but he elected to stay on his feet, rather than taking any contact, only for the chance to go begging.
Things got even better for Wenger’s side in the dying seconds of the first half, with Ozil again pulling the strings. His deft through ball sliced open the Milan defence and Ramsey took the ball brilliantly in his stride, before rounding Gianluigi Donnarumma and slipping the ball home.
Mkhitaryan spurned another glorious chance in the first half, when his rising shot skimmed the top of the crossbar and Milan attempted to hit back after the break. Davide Calabria’s excellent cross with seven minutes gone in the second half was wasted by Giacomo Bonaventura, who blazed over from eight yards.
The Gunners were on the back foot throughout much of the second half and were forced into change after 62 minutes when left-back Saed Kolasinac was replaced by Ainsley Niles-Maitland, who proceded to responded to every question posed by rampaging right-sided midfielder Suso.
For all their dominance Milan failed to trouble Ospina and their frustrations continued to grow. With 12 minutes remaining, Ricardo Rodriguez whipped in a cross to the middle of the Arsenal penalty area which was narrowly missed by Nicola Kalinic. The ball fell to Suso, whose thumping shot sailed out for a throw-in on the opposite flank, and that seemed to sum up Milan’s performance.
The second leg takes place at The Emirates Stadium next Thursday (March 15, at 20:05).