There was a time an AC Milan/Arsenal clash would have been billed as a potential Champions League final. That much pedigree, quality, and strength in depth existed in both squads. Nowadays, the two have been reduced to Thursday night mercenaries. How the mighty have fallen.
Still, memories can’t help but rush back when these sides clash in a glamour Europa League round of 16 tie. The Gunners travel to San Siro today for the first leg. Their last visit wasn’t worth remembering. Four-nil thumpings usually aren’t. Despite a spirited performance in the return leg, they only managed to salvage three goals and were subsequently eliminated from the 2011-12 Champions League Round of 16.
Much has transpired since.
For Milan, it’s been utter frustration on the grand stage. All attempts to return in the last four years have proven futile. The Rossoneri have instead taken solace in Europe’s second-tier tourney. Even there, they’ve struggled. Their fortunes dipped so dramatically, however, qualifying is seen as some sort of achievement in Lombardy.
Failings on the home front are to blame. Eighteen-time Serie A champions, Milan have picked up the Scudetto just once in 13 years. Mediocrity has become the order, the Rossoneri stuck in a mid-table wilderness.
Optimism was high to begin the season. A lavish £175 million summer outlay on new players included snaring Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus. After a flying start results quickly tailed off. Following a goalless draw with Torino in November that left them seventh, 18 points off the pace, manager Vincenzo Montella was axed.
Oddly enough, he is working wonders with Sevilla at the moment. Nevertheless, he was immediately replaced by club legend Gennaro Gattuso. His impact after some early teething dilemmas has been impressive. Milan is unbeaten in 12 games in all competitions and has developed a welcome parsimonious streak under the snarling former Rangers midfielder. They have shipped only four goals during the streak.
Arsenal’s travails have never been better documented. Under Arsene Wenger, they’ve enjoyed some tremendous success. Three Premier League titles,a record seven FA Cups, and perpetual Champions League nights. However, those seem to have happened an eternity ago. Monsieur Wenger finds himself battling to save his job, integrity, and legacy. Time is running out.
Sunday’s limp 2-1 defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion was his fourth in a row in all competitions. It’s their worst run since he arrived. The Gunners have lost eight matches already in 2018, leaving them 13 points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham. Winning the Europa League is the only realistic chance of returning to the elite.
To achieve that goal, they must find a way to infiltrate Gattuso’s brick-wall defence, untested in six successive matches. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette unavailable, that seems an uphill mission. At the other end, however, they must arrest the dangerous trio of Suso, Patrick Cutrone and Hakan Calhanoglu. Between them, they’ve wreaked havoc ten times in the last eight games.
Milan aren’t the offensive threat Arsenal can be. That matters little considering they can defend and the Gunners cannot. More importantly, their boss has his players’ faith. Arsene Wenger has only that of his American owner but as it stands, one is looking to reincarnate the past glory it once possess while the other looks in a to be in doldrums