A game of emotions was encapsulated by Gennaro Gattuso’s gesticulations on the touchline as Arsenal secured their place in the Europa League quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over AC Milan at Emirates Stadium.
It could and arguably should have been tighter than the scoreline suggested after Hakan Calhanoglu’s ferocious first-half strike caught goalkeeper David Ospina on his toes.
The Colombian could have perhaps gotten a hand on the strike but it was a delicious effort worthy of winning such a glamorous European tie, although on this occasion it wasn’t to be for a team who went into the first leg an impressive 13 games unbeaten under Gattuso.
Danny Welbeck’s last goal in European competition was almost four years ago and he played like a man with increased confidence following his call-up to Gareth Southgate’s England squad earlier in the day.
Welbeck has struggled to influence games in recent weeks but provided the talking point of the match shortly before half-time when he appeared to dive in the box with Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez close to him.
Outrage is Gattuso’s default setting, and on this occasion you could hardly disagree with him. His team had cut the deficit from the first leg at San Siro to a single goal before the Welbeck penalty had changed the complexion of the tie. That equaliser stuck in Milan throats and no wonder given that they had scored a beautiful opener, Hakan Calhanoglu striking a fading right-footed shot across the badly positioned David Ospina and into the far corner.
The Turkey international had seen the Arsenal goalkeeper had left too much space to his left and picked his spot despite Granit Xhaka’s attempts to close it down. The home side had invited the trouble, backing off Milan for no good reason and allowing the Italians more territory than they ever really deserved.
Wenger had lost Laurent Koscienly to injury early in the game, a jarring of his back when he landed from a leap to head the ball clear. Welbeck had gone through down the left channel and had his shot blocked by Gianluigi Donnarumma. Then Milan scored and at last Arsenal stepped up the pitch, played around Milan’s box and started asking some questions of their opposition.
Donnarumma had already stopped a a shot from Aaron Ramsey when Jack Wilshere laid the ball off to Henrikh Mkhitaryan who slipped a pass through the defensive line for Welbeck to chase down to the goalline. The Swiss left-back Ricardo Rodriguez checked his run behind Welbeck and there was no contact of any note before the Arsenal man first got clear and then collapsed.
The referee Eriksson hesitated at first and then seemed to take his lead from the additional assistant Johannesson behind the goal who was just yards from the incident. He gave the penalty and Milan were enraged. Gattuso demanded an audience with the fourth official and generally there was dismay all around. Penalty taking duties fell to Welbeck – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was not on the pitch – and he did a good job of sending Donnarumma the wrong way.
They might have had more goals in time added on at the end of the half when Mkhitaryan headed wide from Welbeck’s knock down and Wilshere pinged a left footed shot that Donnarumma got a hand to. They had benefitted from some extraordinary good fortune but on the front foot Arsenal looked much better.
Xhaka’s shot in the 71st minute was a disaster for Donnarumma, the great goalkeeping hope of a great goalkeeping nation, who flapped a relatively harmless shot into his own goal. Welbeck’s second came when Ramsey’s header from Wilshere’s cross was blocked and fell nicely for the striker to tidy up. It will be encouraging for Gareth Southgate that Wilshere seemed only to get stronger as the game progressed.
The midfielder was unfortunate not to score one himself and in the closing stages, Milan opened up considerably. For the first time in a while in Europe’s knockout rounds, Arsenal just had too much quality for these particular opponents and they are five games from winning a competition they never wanted to play in the first place.