We gathered at CultFootball HQ yesterday afternoon to watch Super Tuesday results roll in. Although there had been some noise about opting for the more closely contested matchup in Lisbon, we went with the bigger-name but more lopsided faceoff in London. AC Milan had destroyed and embarrassed Arsenal 4-0 in the first leg at the San Siro a few weeks ago (“the Milan massacre“), and although there were historical precedents for a 2nd leg comeback against Milan, we thought it unlikely.
But whereas Robinho and “the mustached, cheesy-nightclub-predator-looking” Ibrahimovic could do no wrong in the 1st leg, somehow they were ineffective and wasteful this time around. And whereas Milan’s defense had looked nearly impregnable against Arsenal’s flaccid attack in Italy, they coughed up chances which Arsenal finished. Koscielny emphatically headed in a tremendous whipped corner from the Ox in the 7′, and the game was on. Then in the 26′, Milan’s Thiago Silva–who some are tipping as one of the top central defenders in the world–instead of clearing a ball from his own 6-yard line, passed it right to a resurgent Tomáš Rosický*, who slotted it home past Milan goalkeeper Christian Abbiati.
Rosický again orchestrated Arsenal’s midfield action. Wenger lined up his squad in more of a 4-3-3 than their usual 4-2-3-1, with Rosický, usual holder Alex Song, and surprising selection Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as the central midfield 3. It was the Ox who assisted that first goal off the corner, and he created their third goal in the 40′, with a surging run into Milan penalty area, splitting Milan defender Mesbah and Nocerino, who could do nothing but sandwich him. After a moment’s deliberation, referee Damir Skomina pointed to the spot, Van Persie stepped up and blasted it past Abbiati–and suddenly Arsenal were within a goal of pulling even on aggregate.
Indeed, the imitable Barry Glendenning was doing the Guardian MBM of the match, and wrote this at the 44′: “You’d have to say Arsenal are the favourites to win this tie at this stage, as long as they don’t lose the run of themselves and forget to defend stoutly. They’ve been making hay down the right wing, where the visitors’ left-back Djamel Mesbah looks like some supporter who’s won a competition where first prize was the opportunity to play for AC Milan in a Champions League match. He’s having a shocker.”
But after scoring three goals in the first 45′, they were unable to put another one past Abbiati in the second 45′. The moment that is frozen in the memory of anyone that watched that match was Van Persie’s close range encounter with Abbiatti in the 59′. It was a remarkable save, one which dominates the headlines today (e.g., “Christian Abbiati stops Arsenal completing great escape against Milan” and “Milan’s Christian Abbiati hails ‘lucky’ crucial save against Arsenal” and in La Gazzetta dello Sport “Abbiati Santo“–the caption to the Reuters photo of that moment:
*: An extended aside re Rosický: the diminutive Czech has emerged as a central figure in Arsenal’s resurrection over the past couple weeks, and seems to belatedly be fulfilling the promise Wenger saw when he bought “The Mozart of Football” from Borussia Dortmund in 2006. He scored the winning goal in that remarkable comeback against Spurs a couple weeks ago, executing an extended give-and-go with Theo Walcott before flicking the finish over Friedel with the subtlest of touches; and in general he orchestrated things in the midfield.
Indeed, from an August 2007 Guardian Football column prior to an Arsenal Champions League match against Rosický’s first club, Sparta Prague: “A deep thinker, who views top-level football as akin to chess, he prefers to orchestrate – in Germany, he was called the Little Mozart.” Rosický was born in Prague and played in Sparta Pragues youth system from the age of 8:
“Sparta were my team,” he says. “They still are my team in the Czech Republic. It was the most important step in my career. When I was 17 they gave me the first opportunity to play in the league, when I was 18 I played in the Champions League and when I was 19 I was in the national team.”
Fever pitch aptly describes the atmosphere awaiting him: many Sparta fans have not forgiven Rosicky for joining Dortmund and the Bundesliga in 2001 and he anticipates a rough ride. But Rosicky will not allow anything to deflect him. Although only 26, he is one of the oldest heads in Arsène Wenger’s team and he is aware of what is expected. With Thierry Henry now at Barcelona, much of the creative burden this season will fall on his shoulders. After showing flickerings of his mercurial talent last season, it is incumbent on him to deliver consistently.
Mind you, this was 5 years ago. He’s an ancient head in Wenger’s Benjamin Button-like squad, which seems to get younger with each passing season. And with Cesc Fabregas now at Barcelona, Samir Nasri at Man City, and Jack Wilshere still trying to rehab his worrying ankle, Wenger has turned out of necessity to the Czech captain. Here’s what Wenger said five years ago:
“Yes, I think there is more to come from Tomas,” said Wenger. “That is because he is classy and because he is at the age where you get the right balance in the final third. He is sharp, quick, lively and I believe that the final level is to finish well. What we want from Tomas is to give key passes and to score goals. I was happy with his contribution last season. The biggest problem was injury. He struggled after injuries.”
Also: although Mozart was born in Salzburg, he had a special relationship with Prague.