View From The North Bank: Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0

For a while there it seemed like the impossible was on. Many of us dared to hope that we would stage a comeback but I’m not sure many of us thought we’d actually take it so close. In the end we had to settle for restored pride and a strange feeling of what might have been.

Recovering a 0-4 deficit can be made to sound easy when discussed in the pub or at work. Get two goals in the first half then pick off another two in the second and see where extra time takes us. Maybe the players had been having these discussions too because the way we played from the kick off sparked belief all over the ground. The first 45 minutes were like the last ten of countless games at The Emirates where we’ve needed a late charge to salvage a point or three. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team score in the seventh minute and then retrieve the ball for a quick restart like we did last night.

Players pressed and hassled all over the pitch aided by the most vociferous support I think I’ve ever experienced at our new ground. The quality of play was exceptional at times too. The resurgent Tomas Rosicky exemplified all of the above plus points. He drove the team on as he had done against Tottenham but had the quality to dictate the game too.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wasn’t far behind. Reportedly recovering from a bout of flu he got about the pitch with a purpose that always had the visitors worried. His passing was clever, switching play and putting pressure on the Milan backline. His running, as we’ve seen since he forced his way into the first XI, is incisive and allows us to change the game when needed. Often our midfield three will pass square but Oxlade-Chamberlain can force the issue as he did for the penalty.

Graeme Souness apparently likened his talent to Wayne Rooney which I can definitely appreciate. He has the power, the ability and the competitive spirit but fortunately lacks the potato head and penchant for ladies of a certain age.

After the all action display of the first half it was perhaps predictable that we would tire in the second. We seemed to attempt too many killer passes and gave the ball away cheaply. We might have been a touch more calculated in our possession but that must be incredibly difficult when you’ve generated such momentum in the first period. It felt like Milan were there for the taking so it’s no surprise that we kept going for the killer blow.

Of course, we didn’t have the strongest bench last night. It wasn’t ideal to have to bring in two strikers who are either out of form or short of quality, depending on your opinion, but what other choice did we have? I’ve read some people complain that this speaks of the paucity of our squad which I think is wide of the mark on this occasion. I don’t deny that we need better back up strikers but options to rejuvenate the midfield were what was really needed.

Oxlade-Chamberlain played after illness and for a time with a tweaked hamstring whilst Song and Rosicky both carried knocks. What we needed was added impetus after the efforts of the first half had begun to take their toll. Diaby or Ramsey would have been perfect here – remember Ramsey’s energy forcing the winner away to Marseille? – but both were injured. Wilshere and Arteta are both out as are Frimpong and Coquelin. As with the situation at full back earlier in the season, you can’t legislate for that many injuries.

It seems that we criticise referees every match but on this occasion I don’t think it’s just a result of watching the game through red and white tinted glasses. Everyone knew how Milan would approach the second half. They went to ground after every touch and made honest tackles look like fouls. Mexes blatantly blocked Vermaelen as he surged into Milan territory but received no caution. They used every trick in the book and it’s hard to blame them for doing so but it’s disappointing that the referee seemed to be the only person in the ground who wasn’t wise to it.

I’m not suggesting for one second that world class referees cannot come from smaller nations but I do have to question the sense behind employing a team of six officials from a league where the record attendance for a game is 14,000. This was a game played by top quality international Footballers in an intense atmosphere, it wasn’t NK Maribor vs. ND Gorica. I’m keen to reiterate that I don’t want to denigrate officials from the smaller nations or the Slovenian league but there has to be some thought about whether officials have the experience or quality to preside over such an occasion. On the strength of last night I’d suggest that Mr. Skomina was out of his depth.

Despite regrets about poor refereeing, a dodgy penalty in the first leg and a shocking pitch, the usual injury woes and a missed sitter by Van Persie I can’t look on last night with anything other than a feeling of immense pride. The players have shown a genuine fighting spirit in the last three matches and the fans have shown what we can contribute when we stick together. The noises coming out of the club are positive; players are rightly disappointed but also inspired and eager to continue the forward momentum. It may be another season without silverware but we if the last few weeks are anything to go by we could still be in line for a finish that would have defied expectation in August. And given all the noise coming from down the road, I’d take pipping them to third over winning, say, the Beer Cup, all day long.

Keep The Faith.