Arsenal put their recent problems to one side as a polished performance at fallen giants AC Milan gave them the upper hand in their Europa League last-16 tie.
The Gunners arrived at the San Siro at arguably the lowest point of manager Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign, yet responded to a run of four straight defeats with a confident and controlled display against their Italian hosts.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s first goal for the club put the Premier League side ahead, cutting in from the left to fire in with the aid of a deflection off Milan skipper Leonardo Bonucci.
Wenger spoke before the game about his team showing fight without compromising their attacking principles – and they delivered in a dominant first-half performance.
Aaron Ramsey deservedly doubled their lead before half-time, collecting Mesut Ozil’s piercing pass through the centre of Milan’s defence to round keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and tap in.
Milan tried to up the tempo after the break, wasting a clear early chance to pull one back when Giacomo Bonaventura spooned over the bar.
But Arsenal were largely unruffled from then on, limiting the home side to half chances with a solid defensive effort.
The two away goals now make the Gunners firm favourites to reach the quarter-finals after next Thursday’s second leg at Emirates Stadium.
4 – Arsenal have won more away matches in European competition (4 of 5) than they have in all domestic competitions this season (3 of 17). Stugeron.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 9, 2018
“Overall it is important to win, but it is not qualification. We have to finish the job at home. I am happy with the spirit and response we gave,” said Wenger.
“We were not in a position to take risks, but we could not be too cautious as you lose fluidity. We defended with resilience until the end.”
Arsenal travelled to Italy looking for respite from a torrid recent run during which the north London club have lost four straight games for the first time since October 2002.
A toxic atmosphere has been hanging over the club as fans continue to turn against Wenger, with 88% of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust’s (AST) 1,000 members voting this week in favour of the 68-year-old Frenchman’s contract being terminated at the end of the season.
Few of the 2,000 or so Gunners fans who travelled to the San Siro would have been confident of seeing a positive performance.
But they watched a display containing commitment and organisation – two qualities sorely lacking in recent weeks – against a Milan side revitalised under Gennaro Gattuso.
Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck led the line superbly with his tireless running, allowing Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey to find space from deeper positions when the team attacked.
100 – Mesut Özil has now been directly involved in 100 goals in all competitions for Arsenal (37 goals and 63 assists). Maestro. pic.twitter.com/ZMHETXBVWi
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 8, 2018
And defensively, they worked hard as a unit – marshalled by skipper Laurent Koscielny – to deny Milan space in attacking areas.
Arsenal’s problems are not going to be masked by one good result.
However, their display could not help but give the impression that, even in their lowest moments, it would be foolish to write off their chances of somehow going on to win the Europa League and secure a route back into the Champions League.