Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Can Arsenal Recover In Time Beat Milan and Advance?

Priorities and ironies: that's the landscape decorating today's AC Milan-Arsenal Champions League match. San Siro in Milan is the literal setting, but figuratively it's a fascinating match.

Arsenal comes in leading the Premier League by one point, while Milan is fifth in Serie A, 18 points behind Inter Milan. Milan spent the first half of the season unable to win at home, and was quickly reduced to an afterthought in Serie A, despite its standing as reigning European champions. Arsenal, on the other hand, could not have begun this season any better, quickly overtaking Liverpool for the Premier lead, and as recently as early February, led the league by more than five points.

Yet today, should Arsenal advance, it would be a monumental achievement. The Gunners haven't won since Feb. 11, and since, have been upended by Man. U. in the FA Cup (4-0) and lost Eduard, one of its bright young stars, to a horrific leg injury. It could not score in the first leg of this round-of-16 tie with Milan and needs an away goal against the defense-happy Rossoneri.

This game is a shining example of what competitions clubs prioritize, and how that strategy can backfire.

Arsenal put out a less-than-stellar side against Man. U. in its FA Cup match and was smashed. The thinking was that the Gunners were resting players for the first leg against Milan a few days after the FA Cup match. Manager Arsene Wenger messed up his team's momentum and continuity, and Arsenal has not recovered since. He could not have anticipated the emotional impact of the Eduardo injury--not to mention the hole his absence leaves in the Arsenal lineup. Arsenal is reeling, and in what was thought to have been a potential treble season, Arsenal could be left without silverware by the time May 15 rolls around.

Milan on the other hand, conceded Serie A with a wink and a nod and inwardly said it would focus on a repeat championship in Europe. Milan's style and experience are built for this kind of tournament, and it shows in Milan's results. Milan breezed through its group, nicked only by Celtic and a 1-1 draw at Benfica. In the interim, it also won the World Club Championship and a down-time trip to Asia to win the world title.

It will be ironic later tonight if Arsenal is excused from the Champions League. But ultimately, if that's the case, it will have been a matter of priorities.

Gunner Blog has the right perspective: It's a chance for Arsenal to make history.
Reuters' soccer blog looks at the priorities issue.
101 Great Goals has a look at the English papers putting the heat on Cesc Fabregas.
Arsenal FC Blog says, surprise!, that no second-leg match lives up to Milan-Arsenal.
Soccer By Ives previews today's matches.
Arsenal List has a short preview.

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