Arsenal put their recent problems to one side as a polished performance at fallen giants AC Milan gave them the upper hand in their Europa League last-16 tie.
The Gunners arrived at the San Siro at arguably the lowest point of manager Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign, yet responded to a run of four straight defeats with a confident and controlled display against their Italian hosts.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s first goal for the club put the Premier League side ahead, cutting in from the left to fire in with the aid of a deflection off Milan skipper Leonardo Bonucci.
Wenger spoke before the game about his team showing fight without compromising their attacking principles – and they delivered in a dominant first-half performance.
Aaron Ramsey deservedly doubled their lead before half-time, collecting Mesut Ozil’s piercing pass through the centre of Milan’s defence to round keeper Gianluigi Donnarumma and tap in.
Milan tried to up the tempo after the break, wasting a clear early chance to pull one back when Giacomo Bonaventura spooned over the bar.
But Arsenal were largely unruffled from then on, limiting the home side to half chances with a solid defensive effort.
The two away goals now make the Gunners firm favourites to reach the quarter-finals after next Thursday’s second leg at Emirates Stadium.
Awesome Arsenal forget recent struggles
Arsenal travelled to Italy looking for respite from a torrid recent run during which the north London club have lost four straight games for the first time since October 2002.
A toxic atmosphere has been hanging over the club as fans continue to turn against Wenger, with 88% of the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust’s (AST) 1,000 members voting this week in favour of the 68-year-old Frenchman’s contract being terminated at the end of the season.
Few of the 2,000 or so Gunners fans who travelled to the San Siro would have been confident of seeing a positive performance.
But they watched a display containing commitment and organisation – two qualities sorely lacking in recent weeks – against a Milan side revitalised under Gennaro Gattuso.
Arsenal striker Danny Welbeck led the line superbly with his tireless running, allowing Ozil, Mkhitaryan and Ramsey to find space from deeper positions when the team attacked.
And defensively, they worked hard as a unit – marshalled by skipper Laurent Koscielny – to deny Milan space in attacking areas.
Arsenal’s problems are not going to be masked by one good result.
However, their display could not help but give the impression that, even in their lowest moments, it would be foolish to write off their chances of going on to win the Europa League and secure a route back into the Champions League.
Gattuso’s Milan fail to live up to expectations
Seven-time European champions Milan are a shadow of the force they once were, languishing in seventh place in Serie A despite spending more than £200m last summer in a bid to change their fortunes.
However, they went into Arsenal’s visit on a crest of a wave following the arrival of former midfielder Gattuso.
He has transformed their season since replacing the sacked Vincenzo Montella in November, leading them on a 13-match unbeaten run and giving them faint hope of climbing into Serie A’s European qualification places.
Therefore, there was optimism among the 70,000 Rossoneri fans inside the atmospheric San Siro that Gattuso’s side could make a huge statement in front of a bigger European audience.
It seemed justified as they pinned Arsenal back in the opening few minutes – but that was as difficult as it got for the Gunners.
Arsenal quickly wrestled their way back into the game, their passing and movement causing uncertainty in the Milan defence and their defensive solidity meaning the home attack quickly run out of ideas.