LONDON, England, March 6 – The sparkling form of Robin van Persie has given Arsenal the faintest hope of “making the impossible possible” as they attempt to overturn a four-goal deficit against AC Milan on Tuesday.
Arsenal head into the return leg of their Champions League second round tie with the odds — and the record books — stacked firmly against them.
In the 57-year history of UEFA competition, only three teams have ever done what Arsenal must do to avoid elimination on Tuesday following their resounding 4-0 defeat to the Serie A leaders in the San Siro last month.
In the aftermath of that traumatic reverse, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger himself admitted that his team were effectively out of the competition.
Yet the mood in north London has brightened in the weeks since following an extraordinary 5-2 demolition of Tottenham in the north London derby and Saturday’s smash-and-grab 2-1 win over Liverpool at Anfield.
The key contributor to both of those wins was club captain van Persie, the Dutch international who is enjoying the best season of his career.
Van Persie’s two goals in Saturday’s win over Liverpool — including a sublime injury-time winner — took his tally to 31 in all competitions and gives Arsenal precious momentum heading into Tuesday.
“It (the win) keeps the confidence high and we are on a good run now,” Wenger said after Saturday’s win. “It puts us in good condition to make the impossible possible on Tuesday night.”
” … when you see the ball landing at the feet of Van Persie you know he can deliver a special goal.”
“You can never afford to lose a player of that quality. In every game he comes up with something special.”
The problem for Wenger however is that Arsenal’s defence remains vulnerable, and only the woodwork and the form of goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny prevented Liverpool from taking an unassailable lead in a game they dominated.
Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri meanwhile has cautioned his team against viewing the tie as a formality.
Milan are well versed in the dangers of complacency, having seen a 4-1 first leg lead overturned against Deportivo La Coruna in the 2004 quarter-finals, as well as losing the 2005 final to Liverpool after leading 3-0.
“I wish to underline that we have not qualified yet,” said Allegri, who will be without Alexandre Pato, Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta for Tuesday.
Ominously for Arsenal, Milan warmed up for Tuesday’s game with a 4-0 thrashing of Palermo at the weekend which included a first-half hat-trick from Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Gunners’ first-leg tormentor-in-chief.
Ibrahimovic will be relishing a return to the ground where he scored twice for Barcelona during the quarter-finals of the 2010 competition.
The 30-year-old, who is likely to partner Robinho in attack ahead of either Urby Emanuelson or Roberto Aquilani, has revealed that he turned down the chance to join Arsenal in 2000 after being asked to do a trial.
“Arsene gave me the famous red and white jersey – the number nine shirt with Ibrahimovic on it and I was so pleased I even posed for a picture wearing it,” Ibrahimovic recalled in an interview with The Sun.
“He never actually made me a serious offer, it was more, ‘I want to see how good you are, what kind of player you are. Have a trial’.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘No way, Zlatan doesn’t do auditions’.
“I thought ‘You either know me or you don’t and if you don’t know me you can’t really want me’.”
Ibrahimovic’s subsequent playing career saw him enjoy a run of eight consecutive league crowns after stints with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and now Milan.
“I definitely made the right choice,” Ibrahimovic said.