Arsenal the best since my Milan, says Desailly

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The Independent Online

Marcel Desailly prides himself on being economical. Economical in the way he plays, but economical, too, in what he says. So when Chelsea's captain, albeit speaking before Arsenal's rare FA Cup defeat yesterday, describes them as the best club side in Europe since the great Milan of the mid-Nineties, the words carry weight and thought.

Marcel Desailly prides himself on being economical. Economical in the way he plays, but economical, too, in what he says. So when Chelsea's captain, albeit speaking before Arsenal's rare FA Cup defeat yesterday, describes them as the best club side in Europe since the great Milan of the mid-Nineties, the words carry weight and thought.

This is not an admission of defeat ahead of the Champions' League quarter-final second leg at Highbury on Tuesday, let alone Sir Alex Ferguson-style mind games. "Why try to hide from the truth?" said the 34-year-old, who will miss Tuesday's game after being sent off for two bookable offences during the 1-1 draw in the first leg. "If you look at the way they play, and I'm not just talking about this season, Arsenal are the best in Europe."

Better than the current Champions' League holders Milan? "For me, yes," Desailly said, "because there has been a consistency that is quite remarkable. People forget that, for the last six or seven years, they have kept the same group together and won trophy after trophy. OK, so they are missing a European Cup, but that is more about savoir-faire than anything else. The Milan team who won last year [on penalties against Juventus] were hardly sensational, were they?"

So the real question may be how the Arsenal of 2004 compare with the Milan of a decade ago, who thrashed Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions' League final in Athens. "It is extremely difficult to pit teams against each other 10 years on," Desailly explained, "but I just feel that this Arsenal have a rare dynamism. I can't remember a group who play with such zippiness and pizzazz."

Desailly should know; he was an integral part of that great Milan side, who included Marco van Basten, Zvonimir Boban and Franco Baresi. "We had some fantastic players and achieved a lot, but the pace of the game, even that recently, was different."

Throughout his distinguished career, Desailly has enjoyed his fair share of dramatic comebacks. Few will forget the semi-final of the 1998 World Cup, when his fellow defender Lilian Thuram scored his first - and to date only - two goals for France to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory over Croatia.

So how does he rate Arsenal's Stamford Bridge escape, securing a vital 1-1 draw when defeat seemed inevitable after they had fallen behind early in the second half? "What we realised during the first leg," Desailly recalled, "was just how good this Arsenal team are. It is no coincidence that, at the very moment they were under most pressure, they somehow scored a goal."

He added: "It is the mark of a great team that when they look down and out, as Arsenal did for 15 minutes or so after we had taken the lead, they can claw their way out of trouble and find an equaliser."

The fact that Robert Pires was the man who provided Arsenal with their lifeline came as no surprise, but the manner of the goal did. Pires's equaliser was a near-post header, which he won against the robust Chelsea and England centre-back, John Terry. "It goes to show that everything in football is possible," Pires joked. "I will probably not score another header like that again, that's for sure. It's a real collectors' item."

It is also, Desailly was keen to point out, a goal that "counts double in these sorts of matches over two legs". "Scoring away from home is still a big advantage," he said. "For a start, it means we have to find a goal at Highbury, and that is no simple task."

So is the tie dead? "No, but I do think we have to be realistic. We slightly missed the boat at Stamford Bridge by switching off at the vital moment, so now the pressure is on. We're going to have to attack more, defend better and, most importantly, be more vigilant for 90 minutes." A tall order against the best.

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