Even with Thierry Henry playing only one half, Arsenal fans did still have the privilege of witnessing a forward's performance of strength, wit and poise last night. To their disappointment, though, it came from a Milan player.
And if Henry's final 45 minutes for Arsenal were not the sight of another fairytale, he ought at least to have been on centre stage. Instead, he was ruefully passive as he watched his beloved team picked apart. He must have wondered what has become of Arsenal. And he might just have been jealous of the powers of the opposition's No 11.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been criticised for years for underperformance against English sides. Followers of Arsenal might have been rather less blasé: Ibrahimovic scored twice for Barcelona at the Emirates in the pulsating 2-2 draw two years ago.
Last night he was much better, and much more influential. His perfect chip through to an offside Robinho in the opening minutes suggested just how imaginatively he might direct Milan's advances.
The brain, though, is only one of Ibrahimovic's weapons. He has the frame and build to allow him, when he can summon himself, to some fearsome traditional centre-forward play. One powerful run shrugged off Thomas Vermaelen, before a delicate touch back to Urby Emanuelson, who shot wide. He nearly dominated Vermaelen again soon after, penalised for a strong challenge. When he induced a pinch from Laurent Koscielny, it was clear the defenders had been discomfited.
Though it is that blend of athletic forward play with deft, smart football with which Ibrahimovic most recalls Henry's high points. And, seven minutes before the break, he made Milan's second. Sniffing out the area of maximum danger, he darted behind Bacary Sagna into the left channel. Receiving a pass from Emanuelson, he darted into the box, rolling the ball delightfully on to his left foot before crossing for Robinho to nod the ball into the goal. The move was categorically better than any of Arsenal's attacking play in the first half. Robin van Persie, for the first time since his absurd red card in the Nou Camp last year, appeared curiously powerless. Of course, he was provided little service by a starved midfield, but he seemed to be short of his creativity, his authority, up front on his own.
There was little choice, then, for Arsène Wenger but to introduce the man himself at half-time. Given how lacking direction Arsenal's first-half attacks were, it made perfect sense.
Henry, for presumably his last time in an Arsenal shirt (at least until next time), was restored as a traditional centre-forward. He certainly helped the ball to stick, at least some improvement on the first half, while van Persie was moved back into the No 10 role Dennis Bergkamp has implored him to play more often.
But Henry has returned to Arsenal to find his kingdom fallen into disrepair. Last time he played at San Siro with Arsenal, he scored twice in a 5-1 rout of Internazionale. Last night, he was powerless as his troops were overwhelmed again and again by Milan.
There was no emotional goodbye to partner his emotional return. That last- minute winner at Sunderland last weekend will have to do. The highlight, if there was one, was a nice flick to van Persie, whose volley was well saved by Christian Abbiati.
But this was Ibrahimovic's evening, continuing to dominate his opponents and the game as Milan pressed on. Early in the second half he flicked the ball into Robinho's path, and the Brazilian fired home his second of the night inside the near post.
Then, with 13 minutes left, Ibrahimovic was rewarded for his evening of excellence, drawing a foul from Johan Djourou and whipping his penalty just inside Szczesny's left-hand post.
Henry could only look on. He is an Arsenal Invincible, and a hero cast in bronze outside the ground. But he is not omnipotent, and he could not order back the waves of Milanese attacks last night. Especially ones commanded by as powerful a forward as he once was.Reuse content