Sunday, February 17, 2008

Arsenal-Milan: A Historical Look

On Wednesday, in the first leg of the first knockout round of this season's Champions League, English Premier League side Arsenal entertain Serie A giants AC Milan. Graham Lister looks back at the history between these two illustrious and widely supported clubs.

Surprisingly, for two clubs so consistently involved in the Champions League in recent seasons, the head-to-head record of Arsenal and AC Milan is remarkably short. In fact the Gunners and the Rossoneri have met just once before in European competition. And it wasn't in the Champions League, or even in its forerunner, the European Champions' Cup.

No, the only competitive clash between Arsenal and AC Milan was in the European Super Cup well over a decade ago.

European Super Cup, 1995

In 1993-94, AC Milan won Europe's premier club tournament - which had been re-modelled as the Champions League the previous season - for the fifth time in their history. They had also won the Italian championship - the Scudetto - for the third year running, and the 14th time overall.

Meanwhile Arsenal, English FA Cup winners in 1993, had gone on to cause a major upset by defeating a Parma side graced by Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Tomas Brolin 1-0 in Copenhagen in the final of the 1994 European Cup Winners' Cup.

As a result, the then two-legged European Super Cup, initiated in 1971-72 by Ajax as a means of determining Europe's top club by pairing the European Cup winners with the Cup Winners' Cup winners, brought AC Milan and Arsenal together in February 2005.

Contrasting European Fortunes

Thirteen years on, AC Milan's status as a member of Europe's elite remains unchallenged: they will travel to North London not only as the reigning European champions, but also as Europe's most internationally decorated club. The Rossoneri have won no fewer than 18 officially recognised European and World titles - more than any other club.

Their roll of honour includes seven European Champions' Cup/League triumphs (only Real Madrid have won more), as well as a record five European Super Cups, four Intercontinental Cup/Club World Cup titles (also a record), and two European Cup Winners' Cups.

In contrast, Arsenal are international lightweights. They won the European Fairs Cup in 1970 and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1994, and were beaten finalists in the Cup Winners Cup (1980 and 1995), Uefa Cup (2000) and Champions League (2006).

Nevertheless - and notwithstanding Arsenal's chastening 4-0 defeat by Manchester United in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday evening - the Gunners today are a far more formidable outfit than they were back in 1995 when they last encountered the might of Milan.

Gunners In Trouble

The Gunners went into their two games with Milan in February 2005 in a state of internal flux. They were 11th in the Premier League ahead of the first-leg. Blackburn Rovers were top of the table (they went on to win the title), and the likes of Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Wimbledon and Norwich City were higher placed than the North London club, who had won just two of their last 15 domestic League games.

Underlining the club's problems, midfielder Paul Merson had admitted in a newspaper interview that he was wrestling with addictions to alcohol, cocaine and gambling. But overshadowing everything at Highbury at that time was the demise of manager George Graham.

The Scot - a double winner on the pitch for the Gunners in 1970-71 - had returned as manager in 1986 and transformed the club's fortunes, leading them to two League championships, two League Cup triumphs, FA Cup glory and that European Cup Winners' Cup success in the next eight seasons. But during the course of 1994-95 he became the subject of a Premier League inquiry into allegations that he accepted a cash "bung" as part of the transfers of two Scandinavian players to Arsenal.

Remarkably, with the Gunners now struggling in the League, Graham had recently been allowed to bring in John Hartson and Chris Kiwomya and was about to sign Glenn Helder, though none of them was destined to make much impact at Highbury. The Arsenal board, having received details of the League's findings, decided they could no longer stand by Graham, and on February 21st they sacked the 50-year old Scot for "failing to act in the best interests of the club."

So the two games against Milan in fact proved to be Graham's last European assignments with the Gunners; his assistant, Stewart Houston, took over as caretaker manager and completed the task of leading Arsenal to their second successive Cup Winners' Cup final, though Real Zaragoza beat them in the Paris final deep into extra-time. There were no such dramas at the San Siro.

Milan's Own Blues

The previous May, they had won the European Cup in devastating style, stunning favourites Barcelona 4-0 in Athens without key defenders Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta. They had also completed a hat-trick of Serie A titles. It was Milan's third European Cup in six years and their fifth up to that point. However, they had lost the previous season's European Super Cup to Parma, and in December 1994 Velez Sarsfield of Argentina had beaten Milan in the World Club showpiece in Tokyo.

And their Serie A campaign going into the Arsenal game was not over-inspiring, as they'd drawn as many as they'd lost (P17, W7, D7, L3). But that disguised a run of nine unbeaten games that had taken the Rossoneri out of mid-table obscurity and onto the fringe of the League title race. Moreover, Milan had qualified for the knock-out stages of the Champions League, finishing second to Ajax in their group, and were about to resume their campaign in March.

It would take them all the way to the final for the third year running, though their Dutch nemesis, Ajax, would defeat them 1-0 in Vienna in May. There was, of course, a Dutch dimension to Milan at that time.

Silvio Berlusconi had taken over the debt-ridden club in the mid-1980s, installed Arrigo Sacchi as manager and bought three of the world's best players - Dutchmen Ruud Gullitt, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. Between them, and with the considerable help of others in a highly talented squad, they ensured that Milan enjoyed great success.

The Capello Era Had Begun

Sacchi left in 1991 to manage Italy, and was succeeded by current England manager Fabio Capello (who had had a brief spell in charge of Milan at the end of the 1986-87 season). But Capello had several adjustments to make in his squad for the 1994-95 season. Van Basten was still injured, having suffered from ankle problems for the best part of two years.

French striker Jean-Pierre Papin left for Bayern Munich, Romania's Florin Raducioiu joined Espanol, and Denmark's Brian Laudrup went off to Scotland with Rangers. Gullit had returned from Sampdoria, but in November had headed back to Genoa in exchange for Alessandro Melli.

Capello did, though, have outstanding talent at his disposal as Arsenal awaited. Key men included goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi; World Soccer Magazine's World Player of the year Paolo Maldini; skipper Franco Baresi, for years recognised as the world's best sweeper; Gianluigi Lentini, at the time the world's most expensive player; Marcel Desailly, who had arrived from Marseille in 1993; current Italy boss Roberto Donadoni; and 'The Genius' - Yugoslav Dejan Savicevic, who had recently scored four goals in Milan's 5-3 win at Bari in Serie A. Then there were Alessandro Costacurta, Christian Panucci, Mauro Tassotti, Demetrio Albertini, Zvonimir Boban, and Marco Simone.

Arsenal's Artisans

If there were artists in Milan's ranks, the pre-Wenger Gunners were essentially made up of artisans. The fabled defence of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn was still alive and kicking. But the Swede Stefan Schwarz, in his only Arsenal campaign, was the one class act in a midfield that also included the likes of David Hillier, John Jensen and an as-yet unreconstructed Ray Parlour.

Ian Wright and Hartson were sharing the striking responsibilities, while Merson was just returning from rehab. The likes of Martin Keown, Stephen Morrow, Andy Linighan, Ian Selley Alan Smith, Kevin Campbell and Eddie McGoldrick had also featured in recent weeks.

First Leg

So when Milan headed to North London for the first leg on February 1st 1995 they were probably not quaking in their cultured boots. Yet although it produced no goals, it was a lively encounter. Graham, who brought Merson back for an emotional return as a 74th minute substitute, commented afterwards that he took a lot of pride from his side's display.

Arsenal hustled the Rossoneri all the way, but Milan pushed up quickly and made it difficult for the hosts to get runners in behind them.

1st February 1995, Highbury - Arsenal (0) 0, AC Milan (0) 0

Arsenal: Seaman, Dxon, Winterburn, Schwarz, Bould, Adams, Jensen (Hillier 85), Wright, Hartson, Selley, Campbell (Merson 74).
Milan: Rossi, Tassotti, Maldini, Albertini, Costacurta, Baresi, Donadoni, Desailly, Simone, Savicevic (Di Canio 89), Massaro. Attendance: 38,044

Second Leg

Typically, the technical ability of the Milan players - and their defensive organisation - impressed those in the English audience with open minds, and suggested that the second leg at the San Siro would be a tough assignment for the Gunners.

So it proved, as Boban scored four minutes before the break and Massaro settled it for Capello's side on 67 minutes, though Seaman had to make some superb saves to restrict them to two.

8th February 1995, San Siro - AC Milan (2) 2, Arsenal (0) 0

Milan: Rossi, Tassotti, Maldini, Albertini, Costacurta, Baresi, Donadoni, Desailly, Savicevic (Eranio 89), Boban, Massaro (Di Canio 80).
Arsenal: Seaman, Dixon (Keown 66), Winterburn, Schwarz, Bould, Adams, Campbell (Parlour 76), Wright, Hartson, Merson, Selley. Attendance: 23,953


Graham said afterwards that he'd been disappointed with the Gunners' performance, admitting that Milan had been much the better side. He felt Arsenal had shown the Italians far too much respect and allowed them too much time and space. "If you do that," said Graham ruefully, "outstanding players will destroy you."

Ian Wright had a goal disallowed that might have given Arsenal a boost had it stood, but the Milan defence was excellent, pressing in on the Gunners constantly and giving them no room to play.

The forward movement of Capello's side was impressive too, with Boban, Massaro and Savicevic interchanging slickly and then dropping deep when necessary, but Arsenal returned from Italy knowing they hadn't made their opponents work hard enough.

Back To The Present

So now, 13 years on, the two sides meet again. Arsenal top the Premier League by five points from Manchester United, but United exposed their shortcomings on Saturday with a 4-0 drubbing in the FA Cup. Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger had Wednesday's Milan game in mind as he attempted to juggle and protect his depleted squad at Old Trafford.

But the beating they took may have shaken the Gunners' confidence. Meanwhile, in Serie A, Milan drew 0-0 with Parma at the Ennio Tardini in a game that took the Rossoneri up to fourth, albeit temporarily, but was notably mainly for being the 1000th appearance of skipper Paolo Maldini, who came on in place of Marek Jankulovski. Maldini, of course, is the one enduring link from the earlier meeting of these two classic clubs.