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Talking Sport with Neil Trainis

PUBLISHED: 15:12 06 March 2008 | UPDATED: 12:46 11 August 2010

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 04:  Paolo Maldini of AC Milan congratulates Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal after the UEFA Champions League 1st knockout round 2nd leg match between AC Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro stadium on March 4, 2008 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 04: Paolo Maldini of AC Milan congratulates Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal after the UEFA Champions League 1st knockout round 2nd leg match between AC Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro stadium on March 4, 2008 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

2008 Getty Images

GLITTERING European nights at San Siro have on countless occasions down the years taken the breath away but Milan s humbling at the hands of Arsenal did so for different reasons. For those of us who want to relive a bygone age when football was at its pur

GLITTERING European nights at San Siro have on countless occasions down the years taken the breath away but Milan's humbling at the hands of Arsenal did so for different reasons.

For those of us who want to relive a bygone age when football was at its purist, defenders were typically Italian in their uncompromising style, midfielders played with an uninhibited flair and stark discipline and strikers were stylish but clinical need only flick back through Rossoneri archive footage.

To recapture the moment 15-and-a-half years when ago Marco van Basten sent a bicycle-kick past Gothenburg goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli, one of the Dutch striker's four goals that night now synonymous with the panache in which Milan played their football in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is to evoke an elegance which was collectively lacking in the modern side on Tuesday night.

Anyone old enough to reminisce about their destruction, during Arrigo Sacchi's reign, of a Real Madrid team brimming with internationals but outmanoeuvred in every aspect of play during their 1989 European Cup semi-final second leg would feel melancholic when making a comparison between that great side and its contemporaries.

There was a subtle irony tinged with sadness that Carlo Ancelotti, a proud coach in the mould of countless shrewd operators before him and who has delivered two Champions League titles to Milan and lost another final in the last seven seasons, was one of five different players to score as Los Blancos were demolished in style.

There he stood, helpless, hands in his pockets and chewing away on his gum with the air of a man condemned to die and awaiting his execution by firing squad whilst simultaneously sporting an expression of horrified bafflement at what was unfolding in front of him.

Here was a bunch of youngsters who showed they were anything but mere kids, stroking the ball around the famous old turf and engineering space at will with exquisite movement and an electric turn of pace.

There was nothing Ancelotti, or the 11 players in red and black shirts on the pitch, could do to stem Arsenal's confidence which grew with every incisive pass and every crisp tackle.

From an Arsenal viewpoint and an objective one it was awe-inspiring stuff but from a Milan angle, there was something tragic about the way their 'golden oldies', as they had been billed before a ball had been kicked in the tie, were systematically opened up and outfought by a team full of running and innovation.

At times Arsenal were at their fluent, one and two-touch passing best and they went for the jugular in the knowledge they could inflict a win which would not only secure a Champions League quarter final berth but bring down a golden empire.

Arsène Wenger's players, some of whom were not even born when Paolo Maldini made his Milan debut in January 1985, were perhaps driven on by a desire to send out a clear message; the veterans of the Rossoneri have had their time. This is our time.

It was a pleasure to watch a bunch of young footballers, many of whom have not yet won a league title or European Cup, play with the assurance of seasoned campaigners against opponents whose trophy cabinets brim full with reminders of their achievements.

For now though, Milan's accomplishments are firmly cemented in a magnificent past rather than promised in a sparkling future.

In the wake of a comprehensive defeat, the first the red and blacks have sustained by an English team at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, came the sobering realisation that the seven-time European champions are on their last legs in their current guise.

Maldini, the last time he will ever make his way off a football pitch in European competition, looked downtrodden but unsurprised. His 23 years at the game's highest level have given him a sense of perspective and his disappointment would have been tempered by the acknowledgment that his team had been out-thought and out-battled.

History had seen men such as Roberto Donadoni, Ruud Gullit, Dejan Savicevic and Alberigo Evani illuminate San Siro with trickery and invention but that was in short supply from Andrea Pirlo, supposedly one of the finest passers of the ball in Europe, and Kaka, fresh from being named Fifa World Player of the Year.

Mauro Tassotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi and Frank Rijkaard were impressive readers of the game who played with a controlled aggression but let the opposition know they were about.

Gennaro Gattuso, held up as Milan's current equivalent of competitive ball-winner, barely got close enough to disrupt Arsenal's rhythm and Cesc Fàbregas glided past the midfielder with contemptuous ease before firing in the Gunner's opener.

Ambrosini, traditionally all energy and dynamism, found himself on the wrong end of the kind of quick shutting-down he is used to dishing out as Fàbregas, Mathieu Flamini and Aliaksandr Hleb moved the ball about with an intensity Milan's two Italian internationals struggled to contend with.

Ancelotti did not disappear down the tunnel at the final whistle. Instead, he offered a rueful smile to the officials and shook the hand of every Arsenal player out of respect for the way they had dismantled the European champions.

After a poor Serie A campaign and a chastening exit in Europe, his fate may be sealed while the curtain may be drawn on the careers of players who have seen better days.

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