Arsenal may not have escaped with a spot in the next round of the Champions League, but they left the Emirates with something beaten out of them in Milan a few weeks ago—their pride.
Facing a 4-0 deficit, it would have been easy for the Gunners to mail in the second leg of their draw with AC Milan and prepare for the run-in to the Champions League season.
Nobody would have blamed Arsene Wenger for sitting Robin van Persie in order to protect the Gunners' chances at finishing in the top four and reaping all of the benefits that come with it.
Instead, Wenger rolled the dice and went for it, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds in front of him. And it paid off big time, as Arsenal teased the impossible only to fall short, bowing out 4-3 on aggregate. Now, the Gunners have pride, momentum and a unified fanbase after one of the most inspired performances of the season.
Arsenal came out as if they were shot out of a cannon and played fluid, passionate football, stunning a lethargic Milan side reminiscent of some of their more famous European failures. The Gunners struck in the seventh minute off of a brilliant corner from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and the raucous Emirates exploded like a powder keg. It was game on.
Before the Rossoneri knew what hit them, the halftime whistle had sounded, with the Gunners holding a one-goal lead. Arsenal had the momentum and were on the verge of what was seemingly impossible 45 minutes earlier.
However, not every comeback has a fairy-tale ending, as the Gunners simply ran out of gas in the second half, failing to find that one spark to put them over the top. Despite the disappointment, however, the Emirates faithful gave the squad a much-deserved ovation.
In Arsenal's last three matches, they have tallied 10 goals—the most in any three-match span since late October, when the Gunners slotted 10 against Stoke City, Bolton and Chelsea. For a squad that is supposedly a one-man team, the fact that only four of those goals came from their brilliant captain has to be a promising sign going forward.
Couple that with the electrifying play of Tomas Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain, and you have a lot to take solace in if you're in the Arsenal dressing room.
For long stretches of the game, the duo dominated possession and ran the offense to perfection, finding large swathes of open space to press the attack and get their teammates in position to do damage to a bewildered Milan defense.
If Arsenal can get performances like that each and every week, there are few teams capable of holding the Gunners off for long.
Now, Van Persie and company face the most important two-month stretch in recent Arsenal history, and there is a lot riding on a strong run-in to the 2011-12 campaign.
The captain's long-term status is constantly in question, Wenger's job security is as tenuous as ever, and fans are worried about the club's financial stability if they fail to land in the top four.
All of these topics and more surround the North London side, but for the past two weeks (and a brilliant 90 minutes on Tuesday), it was all on the back-burner — and rightfully so.
Arsenal have a heartbeat, a spine and, most importantly, belief as they head down the stretch. Now, with their fate in their hands, the entire script of the Gunners season has changed.
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