AC Milan leave Arsenal's dream in tatters
Milan 4 Arsenal 0: There have been some indignities visited upon Arsene Wenger this season, not least those eight goals conceded at Old Trafford, but being annihilated by Milan at the San Siro last night will rank right up there when they come to tell the gloomy story of Arsenal’s year of pain.
If winning the Champions League looked a distant prospect at the start of the week, the possibility seems laughable now or, in Wenger's own words, the hope of someone living in a "dream world". More pertinently, Arsenal face Sunderland in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday with the sobering reality that it is their last realistic chance of a first trophy since 2005.
The last two seasons they have been eliminated from the Champions League by Barcelona, and no shame in that, but last night they were taken to pieces by a Milan team that is at best average. Arsenal may currently be up to fourth place in the Premier League but given their unpredictability this could be the last we see of them away from home in Europe's premier competition for some time.
It was Thierry Henry's last game on loan and, as a second half substitute, there must have been times when he wished he was back in his Manhattan apartment rather than part of this humiliation. He left the pitch with his arm around the shoulders of his old Barcelona team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic who was, by some distance, the game's most influential player.
Milan's Mr Tempestuous finally had the game against English opposition that his reputation has long demanded. Granted it was a dreadful Arsenal team that he bullied last night but all the same Ibrahimovic created two goals and scored another from the spot.
Just to add to the pain, Manchester City's feckless former Brazilian Robinho scored two. The former Tottenham midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng got the first. Milan could scarcely believe their luck as they pushed again and again at the Arsenal defence and found the door open. If anything the home team should have scored more.
When Wenger comes out after the match and describes his own team's performance as "disastrous" it is evident that Arsenal have a serious problem. "Any hope for the return leg? Let's be realistic, we don't play in dream world," he said in the aftermath. "Realistically we will be out."
Ouch. When even Arsenal's hopeless romantic has given up the ghost there is precious little room for optimism from anyone else. "Shocking" was Wenger's description of his team on a night when he seemed to have little objection to hanging out his players to dry.
Via his Twitter account, Patrick Vieira, captain in the days when Arsenal were still good, said that the team had "a lack of leadership". Later he said: "You cannot only blame Arsène, the players must take some responsibility." He has a point.
The pity for Wenger is that he and this squad of players are locked in a deadly embrace, tumbling downwards and taking one another's reputation with them. Last night his patience was clearly stretched to the limit. Part of him could not believe the shambles that had unfolded and part of him was the same old Wenger, fighting the urge to put a protective arm around the team.
Arsenal did not deserve their manager's excuses this time and he did not try to give them. Indeed, having been offered the chance to blame the dreadful San Siro pitch he refused. The playing surface, with two crumbly tracts along the flanks, was not nearly as damaging to Arsenal's first-half performance as their own sloppiness.
When Arsenal won here in 2008, they held out until the last ten minutes and then hit Milan on the counter-attack. By half-time last night they were clinging on and re-arranging their defence with Laurent Koscielny off with a knee problem and Johan Djourou on in his place. By then the damage was done. Milan had been forced to bring Clarence Seedorf off with injury after 12 minutes, but the Italian champions had barely broken stride. The game was under their control and Ibrahimovic was pulling the strings.
The first goal came on 15 minutes when Arsenal gave the ball away too easily in their own half and Milan's left-sided midfielder Antonio Nocerino had the time to chip the ball over the away team's defence. Boateng had lots of space to steady himself but the half-volley he struck was excellent.
To make matters worse for Arsenal, Thomas Vermaelen was having a dreadful night. His poor decision-making almost allowed Ibrahimovic in on 23 minutes. Later he gave the ball away to Robinho and allowed him a run at goal.
The Brazilian striker scored the second. It was created by Ibrahimovic, who was played in down the left wing by Urby Emanuelson. Bacary Sagna was out of position in the first place and he compounded that error by stopping because he thought the Milan player was offside. By the time Sagna recovered, Ibrahimovic was away and clipped the ball back for Robinho to head in.
Wenger replaced the ineffective Theo Walcott with Henry at the break. The one thing Arsenal could not afford to do was concede again early on. They did so within five minutes. Ibrahimovic flicked the ball to Robinho on the edge of the area and the calamitous Vermaelen fell over, giving the Brazilian the space to beat Wojciech Szczesny.
Arsenal's best chance was a flick-on by Henry from Alex Song's cross from the right that Van Persie hit. Called into action for the first time, Christian Abbiati made a good save.
Ibrahimovic drew Djourou in for a clumsy foul on 78 minutes for the penalty and dispatched it sweetly. It was no less than he deserved. It was no less than Arsenal deserved.
Man of the match Ibrahimovic.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee V Kassai (Hun).