Gunners run out of ammunition to finish off Milan

Heroic comeback falls short and Wenger hopes league form won’t be affected by near miss

ARSENAL 3 vs AC MILAN 0

PROUD manager Arsene Wenger hailed Arsenal’s indefatigable spirit after they came within a whisker of the biggest comeback in Champions League history -- but warned them not to let the near miss affect their top four quest.

First-half goals from defender Laurent Koscielny, midfielder Tomas Rosicky and captain Robin van Persie swept the Gunners to within touching distance of overturning a seemingly insurmountable four-goal deficit from the last 16 first leg.

Only a point-blank save from Christian Abbiati denied Van Persie a tie-levelling fourth after the break but Arsenal faded as their early chasing caught up with them, leaving Wenger to reflect on elimination and a bittersweet evening.

“We are disappointed because we touched qualification. We had the chances and we didn’t do it, but we were very close,” he said.

“The players put in a focused performance, fantastic spirit, and you can only congratulate the whole team. It’s a night when the players can be proud to play for this club.”

Crashing out of Europe threatens to dent Arsenal’s resurgence as they enter the defining stage of the season, and Wenger urged his charges not to falter in their bid to finish in the top four and reach next season’s Champions League.

“It will be difficult because it’s a big disappointment for the players,” he added. “But I think the team has grown together and hopefully from there we can finish the season in a strong way. There’s no room for disappointment in the league.”

Arsenal needed an early goal to foster belief and Koscienly provided it in the 7th minute, escaping Mark van Bommel to meet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner with a firm downward header.

Rosicky poured more fuel on the fire in the 26th minute when he slotted Thiago Silva’s fluffed clearance past Abbiati, and when Van Persie slammed in a penalty just before half-time, Emirates Stadium was ablaze with incredulous excitement.

Just one more goal was needed to take the Italian league leaders and seven-time European kings to extra-time and, despite Van Persie enjoying a chance four yards out, Abbiati, and Milan, thwarted the fairytale.

MATCH ANALYSIS

BY FRANK DALLERES

CITY A.M. VERDICT
It was almost the greatest comeback in Champions League history, but in the end Arsenal’s tired legs caught up with them. All the same, they will take huge encouragement from this display.

MAN OF THE MATCH
Finally, after six years at Arsenal, Tomas Rosicky is showing why he earned rave reviews at Borussia Dortmund. Drove his team on relentlessly in the manner of Cesc Fabregas.

KEY MOMENT
Robin van Persie thumped in the third just before half-time, but it was all down to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s magic, the teenager terrifying Milan into conceding a penalty.

TALKING POINT
They’re out of Europe, but the spirit shown by Arsenal here, at Liverpool and against Tottenham bodes well for what is sure to be a tooth-and-nail scrap for a top four spot .