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So near yet so far

What an experience it was. It was a game where we can’t fault any player for the efforts. It was 100% from everyone in the red and white. From the players to the fans. It is hard to think that a 3-0 win over AC Milan is worth nothing in context of the competition. No one gave us a ghost of a chance but we so nearly did it.

It was the poor performance in the first leg that did us in. This was what we expect from the team when we were drawn against them. That our pace and speed of passing will be our greatest asset. On that shambolic pitch in Milan we struggled but the wonderful pitch at the Emirates showed just what we’re capable of when the conditions are right.

The better surface

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was given his first start in the central midfield position. After this performance, it wouldn’t be his last. Though, I thought it was a little strange that he was in a deeper position than Tomas Rosicky. The fact that we had control of midfield shows just how talented AOC. He’s disciplined enough to maintain his position and not drive forward at every opportunity.

We got to the best of start when Laurent Koscielny was unmarked and powered in a header off AOC’s corner kick. If the crowd needed any motivation to cheer for the team, this was it. The tempo of the game was good but we still needed more to pull the tie level. The lead from the first leg was halved when Rosicky was gifted the ball inside Milan’s penalty box and carefully picked his spot beyond the reach of Christian Abbiati.

2 minutes before the half time whistle, we got even closer. AOC chose the right moment to drive at the opposition. Running in between 2 Milan defenders, he was fouled and penalty was given. Mark Van Bommel tried to play mind games with Robin Van Persie, first by going over to talk to Abbiati then to RvP. RvP was not fazed and sent the keeper the wrong way to put us to within a goal of levelling the match.

This was beyond amazing. A great comeback was set to be done but it wasn’t to be. Our pace dropped considerably in the second half. That win a few days ago at Liverpool really took a lot out of us. Not forgetting that due to injuries, we only managed to make 2 changes from the side that won at Anfield. When we needed that extra push, it didn’t help that we had to take off AOC and Theo Walcott, both to injuries. Marouane Chamakh and Park Ju Young came on but failed to make an impact on the game.

Walcott had a few chances in the second half but chose to dribble one too many times. RvP had the best chance when he was not flagged offside but his chip was parried by Abbiati. It could’ve got worse had Zlatan Ibrahimovic pick his spot better when Wojciech Szczesny’s clearance went straight to him. Szczesny maintained his form from the previous game and denied a few one-on-ones.

I just wish that for once we don’t have to talk about the referee’s performance. Davir Skomina was a total disgrace. Every single time that a Milan player went down, it was a foul to them. When it happened to us, nothing. When Thomas Vermaelen went driving forward and was clattered by Philippe Mexes, nothing was given. It was piss poor and you must start to wonder how much richer this Slovakian is after last night.

But the damage was done in the first leg. Had we realised that we were not at the races that day and chose to shut up shop when we were 2-0 down at half time, we might have gone through yesterday. However, no point crying over spilled milk. If anything, it highlighted further what an incredible defender Koscielny is. I’m sure you would’ve seen his stat from twitter last night and he looked even better in real life. So composed and assured on the ball.

Special mention goes to Rosicky, who ran the midfield yesterday. He bossed all over the Milan midfield. Van Bommel tried but could not even get close to him. Rosicky was deflated right at the end. For someone who was close to missing out yesterday because of injury concern, he was fantastic. The Czech captain has really come into his own this past 1 month and will surely now earn a contract extension.

Last ones to trudge off

As for my own experience of going for a match? It was bloody fantastic. I sung, cheered and boo (when Milan had the ball) together with the tens of thousands of fellow Arsenal fans. It’s an atmosphere to behold. I got to the stadium 2 hours before kick off and took my dinner along Gillespie Road before walking towards the stadium. Plenty of Milan fans were already there and some of them even asked me for direction. The irony of it wasn’t lost on me.

I was surprised to find out that the stadium doors to the seat (other than club level) were not open until 45 minutes before kick-off. This was something new to me. Stadiums in Malaysia open their doors close to 2 hours prior to the start. But the delay meant that I was able to witness a big group of Milan fans chanting and singing their way to their stadium entrance. Great sight.

The seats are fantastic. Great view from every single one of them. No, I didn’t try to sit on every single seat. The planning and engineering design worth every praise that goes that way. Must say, I was secretly hoping that Arsene Wenger will read out the number on the back of my match programme but it was not meant to be. Pity the guy next to me who had all the numbers read out but in different order.

I’m glad I chose this match as my debut at the Grove. Having bought the tickets before the first leg, I really thought we could get a result in Italy and I would be able to celebrate qualification to the next phase. Then when the 4-0 happened, I was asking myself why did I chose this match. But having sat through the entire experience yesterday and witness the wonderful effort that the team put in, I was well pleased.

Out but proud. An European encounter to savour.

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