Arsenal left their bodies on the Emirates pitch last night. Tomas Rosicky sat slumped on the floor, destitute at 90 pulsating minutes while Thomas Vermaelen looked to the sky and Robin van Persie simply trudged quietly down the tunnel.
Gentle, loving applause from the appreciative crowd would have warmed their hearts and lifted them to their feet but the Arsenal team that had just came close to pulling off the greatest comeback in Champions League history were inconsolable; A.C Milan were there for the taking but the somehow managed to elude the Gunners grasp.
How close they came and how they endeared themselves to the watching millions. Beforehand Sky tapped into the growing feeling of patriotic chest-thumping with flashing images of Botham’s Ashes and Liverpool’s class of 2005; make no mistake there was genuine belief that the impossible could happen.
Four straight Premier League victories including vital wins against Tottenham and Liverpool contributed to the feel good buzz emanating from the red half of north London.
Memories of their first leg nightmare in Milan had been eradicated and redemption for a low point of Arsenal’s season was in the offing. Hell hath no fury like an Arsenal side bursting with confidence and belief.
Key to the buzz was a familiar face rejuvenated and a young fizzing whippersnapper, generating hype with a performance that drew comparison to Wayne Rooney.
Tomas Rosicky, a man once emblematic of the mediocrity that threatened to pull the Gunners back from title winners to simply top four challengers was alive at the heart of his side’s midfield.
Pulling strings and triggering streaming counter attacks that set Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Robin van Persie on the Milan back four like rabid dogs, the Czech international could easily have been mistaken for another lank-haired playmaker wearing white from across north London last night.
While Rosicky was the commander and general, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was on the front line, wreaking havoc in the trenches.
His wicked delivery for Laurent Kolcielny, who gladly accepted the gift of Milan’s generous defending to open the scoring after six minutes and set the wheels in motion demonstrated another aspect of his game but it is his pace and directness that makes him the hot property of English football at the moment.
The former Southampton winger, shoehorned into an unfamiliar, deeper-lying position in a midfield three behind Gervinho, Van Perise and Walcott bristled with confidence against one of the leading sides in Europe. A place with England in Poland and Ukraine this summer surely awaits.
However despite the positives - and there were many - come the final whistle, exhausted, battered and bruised they came up agonisingly short.
Four goals was a step too far against a Milan side who, while containing no players from that infamous Istanbul final, demonstrated characteristics of a team suffering with insecurities having been knocked out by English teams in each of the last three years.
Fatigue after their early exertions and a lack of options to spruce things up from the bench took their toll while Milan deserve at least some credit for steadying the ship when confronted with an Arsenal storm.
Wenger’s side will accept the plaudits for their performance but at what price did their valiant defeat come?
Alex Song in particular looked utterly shattered after covering every blade of grass on Arsenal’s lush pitch which bore little resemblance to the ploughed field at the San Siro;
His desperate ill-advised ball over the top in the dying minutes when he had runners either side smacked of a man running on fumes, while both Oxlade Chamberlain and Walcott both left the pitch limping off rather than held aloft by team-mates for their part in a famous win.
How Wenger will be ruing sending Andrey Ashavin out on loan a year on from his dramatic winner against Barcelona at the same stage of the competition with both wingers coming off.
While the Russian has failed to fire this season he surely represents a better option coming from the bench to add impetus than Marouane Chamakh and Park Ju-Young.
The win over Liverpool last weekend had already claimed more than its fair share of injury victims and now Arsenal face competing with Spurs and Chelsea for a top four spot with a depleted squad.
Wenger’s assertions before the game that he could hardly rest the likes of Van Persie and have his claims that his side would go for the jugular taken seriously was correct of course.
However aside from the physical implications of such a stoic effort, Wenger must also be concerned with the mental damage done to his side.
After the first leg, defeat and exit at the last 16 stage had been mulled over and accepted; with the F.A Cup also gone the league and their recent good form offered solace and a focus for the remainder of the campaign.
Having come so close it was clear to see the heartbreak and disappointment etched on the faces of Wenger’s men after the game, while the Frenchman spoke solemnly after the game of his ‘big disappointment’ while saying there was no room for that feeling to carry over into their tie against Newcastle.
Arsenal have demonstrated before, not least after going 2-0 down against Tottenham that they are made of sterner stuff than that but in may ways the 3-0 scoreline represents the worst possible outcome for them; agonisingly close that they will be truly disappointed whereas before the game many of the club’s fans had already accepted their fate.
Morale could go either way after a game like the one last night. Their desire for Champions League football, while never diminished in the slightest, will have reached new levels but having almost converted what most saw as a dream into reality it will be hard to shake the feeling of what have been.
Arsenal gave their all and just missed out. It would be interesting to confront Wenger with the proposition of settling for a quiet, less exhausting and less mentally draining 1-0 win last night to see what option he would plumped for.
They have fought back before; from a poor start to the season, from an 8-2 drubbing against Manchester United and from an impending thrashing against Spurs.
They couldn't quite do complete their resurrection from the dead last night - now they must show they are capable of picking themselves off the floor once more, or face seeing their roller coaster season end on a downwards slide.
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