Arsenal FC: 5 Bold Predictions for Champions League Showdown with Milan
It must be fate. The 2011/12 Champions League Round of 16 draw once again saw Arsenal paired with one of the most formidable opponents in the entire competition.
Though the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid are being quoted by pundits as the "super-favourites" for this year's tournament, AC Milan showed in the group stage that they are still a championship-calibre team.
Here are some of the predictions regarding the Round of 16 tie that will undoubtedly garner the most attention this year.
First Leg's Result Will Decide Who Progresses
Unlike previous seasons, Arsenal, as group winners, will play the first leg of the tie away from home. Taking into account Arsenal's formidable record against Italian oppositions in Italy, a trip to the San Siro may not be as intimidating as it looks. In fact, Arsenal became the first English team to beat Milan at the San Siro in 2008, having thrashed Inter 5-1 four years prior at the same venue.
Contrary to popular beliefs, Italian teams' renowned defensive mindsets seem to have faded in recent years (bar Mourinho's Inter). This is shown by Arsenal's magnificent displays in Milan, in which they found acres of space all round the pitch to cause their opponent trouble, and more recently at the Stadio Friuli, where they beat Udinese to qualify.
While the two teams' last encounter at the Emirates was a high-octane affair, it failed to produce goals and the result did not influence proceedings.
Therefore, it could be possible that the first leg at Milan's fortress will seal the two teams' fates.
This Time Van Persie, Not Cesc, Will Ignite the Fireworks
"OH that'll do it! Cesc Fabregas with a little over six minutes remaining has put Arsenal within sight of the quarterfinals of the Champions League."
Who could forget that night, when undoubtedly Arsenal's greatest ever European performance came to fruition when the former captain's solo effort, coupled with Kalac's late reaction, sent Arsenal through to the quarters.
But with Cesc's departure, his aura seems to have found a new owner in the shape of the lethal Dutchman Robin van Persie, who has almost scored around (n+2) goals in (n) games this season.
Van Persie is on his way to breaking the record for most goals scored in a calendar year in English football; words cannot describe his contribution to Arsenal's incredible turnaround.
With the media and fans so used to reading this man's name next to a myriad of superlatives on the Sunday paper, predicting RvP to be MVP is a fairly safe bet. Although Milan boast another in-form attacker in Ibrahimovic, the Arsenal captain's hot streak may just overshadow the Swede on the night.
Arsenal Will Concede from Set Piece
Arsenal's eternal Achilles' heel, set piece defending, may once again cost them.
Though giant German centre-back Per Mertesacker has been brought in, he hasn't quite lived up to the billing as the solution to the Gunners' lack of organisation and physicality to defend set pieces.
The problem will be compounded when the team faces lethal headers from the physically imposing Milanese squad consisting of Ibra, Boateng and Thiago Silva.
However, Walcott's Pace Will Hit Milan on the Counter
As he has shown numerous times already, especially against Italian teams, Theo Walcott will wreak havoc against any opposition when his pace is correctly exploited with through balls down the flank.
Surely Gunners fans, including myself, will hope to witness something special yet again from the 22-year-old.
The Winner of the Tie Will Progress to the Final
You have to beat the best to be the best. While Arsenal fell short in previous seasons, their conquerors—namely Barcelona—had often gone on to either win or reach the final of the competition.
In fact, the Gunners' progression from the Round of 16 in the past few seasons had often paved the path to at least a semifinal appearance (bar 2009). Let's hope this time they will go one better.