Arrivederci Milan – the old masters undone by a young Arsenal team who announced themselves in stunning style upon the European stage last night. From Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor, the goals; from Arsenal, thrilling evidence that an English team can come to San Siro and beat Milan at their own accomplished game. It was a sumptuous performance, born of the confidence that the game should be taken to Milan rather than allow the now-deposed European champions to dictate their own terms.
The holders are out and the conclusion must be that in this form Arsène Wenger's team should fear no one in the Champions League quarter-finals. Fabregas's goal six minutes from time was the pinnacle of a giant performance from the little Spaniard and his amigos. In injury time Adebayor added the second and completed a lesson to the rest of English football that flair and courage are the way to beat Milan.
In May, Manchester United were blown away on the same pitch on which Fabregas and Alexander Hleb ran riot for most of last night. In Athens in May 2007, Rafael Benitez was too timid to take the game to Milan in the European Cup final. Last night Wenger's team did just that with glorious results.
What better way for them to round it off than Theo Walcott bursting past Kakha Kaladze in injury time to serve up Adebayor's first goal for Arsenal in European competition. Out with the old and in with the new. This venerable Milan back four, of Paolo Maldini, Kaladze, Alessandro Nesta and Massimo Oddo, creaked and then finally gave way. The flourish by Arsenal in the final 10 minutes seemed to be ushering these greats of European football gently towards retirement.
Last night we saw the very best of Wenger's creed, his conviction that his young team can beat anyone. On the stage on which Cristiano Ronaldo faded from view so badly in the Champions League semi-finals last May, Fabregas served up an epic performance. Certainly, it took the little midfielder 15 minutes to find his rhythm but when he did he took the breath away at times, leaving that old stager Andrea Pirlo chasing his shadow in the cold, damp air of San Siro.
On the roll call of great performances, Hleb comes next – the Belarusian took a battering at times but he was a puzzle to the Italians for most of the game and one they never came close to solving. His ability to keep the ball and distribute it in the most unpromising situations rendered the Milan midfield of Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso and Massimo Ambrosini peripheral characters. Mathieu Flamini was no slouch either but the queue for man of the match was more crowded than ever.
As for Wenger, it would be fair to say that the fears that the Arsenal manager was feeling the heat of the title race in the last 11 days may have been somewhat overblown. The old boy can suffer from some foul moods at times but there is nothing so admirable as a team – in this age of managerial caution – that sets out to win a tie as tricky as this in such difficult circumstances. This was comparable with Arsenal's triumph against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu in 2006; it was certainly just as awe-inspiring.
No Walcott in the starting line-up and with 20 minutes gone you could see Wenger's point. Kaka embarked on one glorious long run in the 19th minute, sweeping past first Fabregas and then William Gallas; Milan looked a different proposition to the team that played at the Emirates. But soon Wenger's team were producing moments to freeze the blood of the Rossoneri.
As well as Fabregas, Hleb and Flamini in midfield, Adebayor contributed a monumental shift of work, chasing across the line and embarrassing the right-back Oddo more than once. For all Arsenal's dominance in the closing stages of the first half you felt they needed to score a goal in a period in which they had outplayed Milan.
They came within a heartbeat of scoring in the 34th minute. Adebayor cut in from the left and found Fabregas, whose shot clipped the bar above the Milan goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac. As the first half drew to a close there was the unmistakable sound of whistles from the home support – they are not accustomed to teams coming to San Siro and giving their boys a lesson in passing.
The half ended with an immaculately timed tackle by Flamini on Kaka as he bounded through the middle. The Brazilian never really broke free of the grip of Arsenal's midfield.
With 55 per cent possession in their favour over the game, Arsenal were smashing the old notion that you could not come to San Siro and take on Milan at their own game. Two minutes into the new half and a Fabregas corner shot across the Milan area to the feet of the least suitable man to finish it off. Senderos hit his shot straight at Kalac.
For all their confidence in the midfield, there was an inherent timidity about Arsenal in front of goal. With most of Milan's defence ranged against them on the edge of the area they passed the ball back and forth; they deferred and doubled back. When the chances came they fell to the wrong men. With 20 minutes left, Wenger threw on Walcott, further proof that he would not simply defend during the closing stages.
As they seemed to falter, so Arsenal struck, first through Fabregas on 84 minutes when Pirlo conceded possession. The Spanish midfielder picked the ball up and slammed it past Kalac – the game was over. Then in the closing stages, Walcott broke clear and cut the ball back to Adebayor to score the second. If life at the top is over for this great Milan team, it is surely just starting for Arsenal.
Milan (4-3-1-2): Kalac; Oddo, Nesta, Kaladze, Maldini; Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini; Kaka; Inzaghi (Gilardino, 69), Pirlo. Substitutes not used: Fiori (gk), Emerson, Simic, Favalli, Gourcuff, Bonera.
Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Senderos, Clichy; Eboué (Walcott, 71), Flamini, Fabregas, Diaby; Hleb (Gilberto, 89); Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Van Persie, Denilson, Bendtner, J Hoyte.
Referee: K Plautz (Austria).Reuse content