James Lawton: No fairy-tale ending but the future now has a chink of light

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The Independent Online

Yes, we can say it as coldly as we like now. It was always too good to be true. Yet we should give Arsenal, one fighting to regain some of its old life and grandeur of purpose, a tribute that has become extremely rare these last few months.

We can say this was a team that created rather more than a spark of belief in the possibility that one day in the not too distant future they may well come again. Not just as contender but something to be recognised as Arsenal, a team of new horizons and old values.

This would have been a mighty triumph of renewal. Instead, it was a departure from the Champions League that had held the possibility of something close to shame. But there was no shame, no hint of humiliation last night – only bone deep disappointment an impossible dream had simply ebbed away.

Impossible? For a little whileArsenal made it seem no more than a task of some urgency, anopportunity for players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny to confirm manager Arsène Wenger's belief that even in the absence of Jack Wilshere he has players who can make something of this season that once promised only disaster.

Wenger might have had the demeanour of a partisan, agitated ballboy in the taut early minutes but relaxed with the first evidence his team might just deliver what he craved more than anything.

This was not necessarily a comeback unprecedented in the annals of the Champions League but a show of character, a willingness to face the heaviest odds and emerge with a much stronger belief in your own powers.

After seven minutes we had a custom-made example. Oxlade-Chamberlain sent in a corner of perfect weight and direction and Koscielny burnt away the Milan cover as though it was so much harvest-time chaff.

What followed was extraordinary not so much for its drama but the growing sense that Arsenal may have well have come up with some perfect exploitation of what Wenger had identified as Milan's pyschological problem, the potentially withering conclusion that they had merely to show up at the Emirates. Their separation from this illusion could hardly have been more wrenching when Thiago Silva cleared into the path of Tomas Rosicky and the Czech, whose revival continues to mock the idea that he was something of relic of Arsenal's past, drilled the ball home with some conviction.

Milan, it has to be said, were at this point quite as abject as Arsenal had been in the San Siro. Their defensive measures constituted a full blown Italian scandal, one which reached another dismal point when the brilliant Oxlade-Chamberlain produced a run of such serious intent that the Milan defence almost literally froze in his path. The inevitable penalty was smashed home by Robin van Persie as tension built exquisitely with the re-positioning of the ball on the penalty spot.

In the early going of the second half, Arsenal became much more hectic and it did not help that Oxlade-Chamberlain, who at 18 had seemed as much a moral force as an 18-year-old of at times stunning precocity, entered a lull which provoked fears of injury.

It was harder now for Arsenal, plainly. Milan, so passive in the first half, were alerted to the possibilities of disaster and it was a realisation that was accompanied by signs of dwindling Arsenal composure. When Milan keeper Abbiati only half saved Gervinho's shot, van Persie had the goal at his mercy. He tried a little finesse rather than some visceral force and the millisecond was lost amid growing fears that a sublime story might just be nudging and scrambling towards anti-climax.

Wojciech Szczesny had to make a jittery save, Oxlade-Chamberlain was forced out of the game and then Walcott was reduced to a limp and an exit that might at one point have carried so much more potential glory as Milan's defence played as though by numbers.

It was hard not to believe by then that the fantasy was over, but if there was a grating sense of what might have been, if say Van Persie's predatory instinct had been operating at an optimum level, there was also a need to recognise something quite exceptional. It was Arsenal's refusal to slink away. They did the opposite of that – and may well have re-cast their future.