James Lawton: Brave display against Milan shows glory days are on horizon for Arsenal
Yes, we can say it as coldly as we like now. It was always too good to be true. Yet we should give Arsenal, a team fighting to regain some of their old life and grandeur of purpose, a tribute that has become extremely rare these last few months.
We can say that this was a team which created rather more than a spark of belief in the possibility that one day in the not too distant future they may well come again. Not as just as contenders but something that might be recognised as Arsenal, a team of new horizons and old values.
This would have been a mighty triumph of renewal. Instead, it was a departure from the Champions League that had held the possibility of something close to shame. But there was no no hint of humiliation last night – only bone-deep disappointment that an impossible dream had simply ebbed away.
Impossible? For a while Arsenal made it seem no more than a task of some urgency, an opportunity for players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny to confirm Arsène Wenger's belief that even in the absence of Jack Wilshere he has players who can make something of this season that once promised only disaster.
The Arsenal manager might have had the demeanour of a partisan, agitated ballboy in the taut early minutes but he relaxed with the first evidence that his team might just deliver that which he craved more than anything.
This was not necessarily a comeback unprecedented in the annals of the Champions League but a show of character, a willingness to face the heaviest odds and emerge with a much stronger belief in your own powers.
After seven minutes we had a custom-made example. Oxlade-Chamberlain sent in a corner of perfect weight and direction, and Koscielny burnt away the Milan cover as though it was so much harvest-time chaff.
What followed was extraordinary not so much for its drama but the growing sense that Arsenal may have well have come up with some perfect exploitation of what Wenger had identified as Milan's pyschological problem, the potentially withering conclusion that they had merely to show up at the Emirates.
Their separation from this illusion could hardly have been more wrenching when Thiago Silva cleared into the path of Tomas Rosicky and the Czech, whose revival continues to mock the idea that he was something of a relic of Arsenal's past, drilled the ball home with still more conviction. Milan, it has to be said, were at this point quite as abject as Arsenal had been in San Siro. Their defensive measures constituted a full-blown Italian scandal, one which reached another dismal point when the brilliant Oxlade-Chamberlain produced a run of such serious intent that the Milan defence almost literally froze in his path. The inevitable penalty was smashed home by Robin van Persie as tension built exquisitely with the re-=positioning of the ball on the penalty spot.
If there was a particular danger now, it lay in the onset of Arsenal hubris but for the moment, at least, it was a point that didn't have to be especially underlined by Wenger at half-time. A passing reference to the devastation that might have followed the defensive breakdown so poorly exploited by Milan's Stephan El-Shaarawy would surely have sufficed.
Another worry, though, was that in the early going of the second half Arsenal became much more hectic than they had been while pushing back the realm of the possible before the break. Nor did it help that Oxlade-Chamberlain, who had seemed as much a moral force as an 18-year-old of at times stunning precocity, entered a lull which provoked fears of injury. It was harder now for Arsenal, plainly. Milan, so passive in the first half, were alerted to the possibilities of disaster and it was a realisation that was accompanied by signs of dwindling Arsenal composure. When the Milan keeper Christian Abbiati only half-saved Gervinho's shot, Van Persie had the goal at his mercy for at least half a second, normally time enough. This time he tried a little finesse rather than some visceral force and the half-second was lost amid growing fears that a sublime story might just be nudging and scrambling towards anticlimax.
Wojciech Szczesny had to make a jittery save, Oxlade-Chamberlain was forced out of the game.
It was hard not to believe by then that the fantasy was over but, if there was a grating sense of what might have been, if say Van Persie's predatory instinct had been operating at an optimum level, there was also a need to recognise something exceptional. It was Arsenal's refusal to slink away. They did the opposite of that, and may have re-cast their future.