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Reacting to Milan vs Arsenal in the Europa League Round of 16 Draw

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Milan will face one of the tournament favourites and one of the biggest teams in England in the Europa League Round of 16.

After it was announced that Borussia Dortmund would face-off against Red Bull Salzburg, anyone watching this afternoon’s Europa League draw knew that we were all in for a treat as the two remaining teams were Milan and Arsenal.

Two of the biggest teams in their respective leagues, the upcoming matches are a heavyweight clash and it is a shame that one of these great teams will go out so early in the competition.

The first-leg of this fixture will be played at the San Siro on March 8 and the second-leg will be played at the Emirates Stadium the following week on March 15. This encounter will be the first time that these two sides have ever played each other in the Europa League as the two have battled six times before with two wins for Milan, two wins for Arsenal and two draws.

This will be the first meeting between the two sides since the 2011-12 Champions League when the Rossoneri and the Gunners faced off in the Round of 16. Milan won the first leg comfortably with a 4-0 victory, thanks to goals from Kevin-Prince Boateng, a double from Robinho and a Zlatan Ibrahimović penalty. Despite the tie being as good as over in the first leg, Milan nearly went out at the Emirates Stadium as they were well-beaten 3-0. Il Diavolo were saved by a man of the match performance in goal from Christian Abbiati who performed a fantastic save from a Robin Van Persie attempt. 

Despite Milan progressing over Arsenal in 2012, the North London club got the better of the Italians in the 2007-08 Champions League, once again in the Round of 16. Arsenal became the first English side to beat Milan at the San Siro courtesy of a 2-0 second leg victory that eliminated the holders in the early stages of the Champions League.

Arsenal’s performance that night was perfect as they absorbed pressure from an attack that featured the likes of Filippo Inzaghi, Alberto Gilardino and the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year Kaká, Arsenal were able to counter-attack an ageing Milan defence that included Paolo Maldini.

The first two meetings between the two sides was in the 1994 European Super Cup, Milan were the winners of the 1993-94 Champions League and Arsenal were the winners of the 1993-94 European Cup Winners’ Cup. Milan’s team at the time was widely considered one of the greatest of all time and was coached by the legendary Fabio Capello. A side featuring the likes of Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marcel Desailly and Dejan Savićević, Milan had swept aside Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ that was coached by the iconic Johan Cruyff 4-0 in the Champions League final. Arsenal had beaten Parma 1-0 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup Final and boasted some quality players of their such as David Seaman, Tony Adams and Ian Wright.

The first leg of the European Super Cup Final was played at Arsenal’s former ground Highbury and ended in a goalless draw but the second leg was a different story, as Milan dominated the game at the San Siro and emerged victorious with a comfortable 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Zvonomir Boban and Daniele Massaro. As a result of this victory, Milan won the 1994 European Super Cup.

Arsenal have been regarded as one of the favourites to lift the Europa League this season but recent performances from the Gunners have been inconsistent as they are in sixth place in the English Premier League and eight points away from a Champions League place. As a result of this, Arsenal’s focus will be on winning the Europa League as this is realistically Arsene Wenger’s only chance of achieving Champions League qualification for next season.

This season in the Europa League has been fairly comfortable for Arsenal, though as they won their group with ease as they won four of their six group matches, drawing one game and then losing another. Arsenal faced Swedish side Österunds in the Europa League Round of 32 and after winning the first leg 3-0 away from home, a weakened starting eleven lost 2-1 at home to the Swedes in an embarrassing performance.

Wenger has heavily rotated side during the tournament, but as his Arsenal side is facing Milan, it is expected that he will field his sides strongest eleven that includes some fantastic players.

Arsenal signed former Milan player Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund in the January transfer window, but the Gabonese international is cup tied as he was still a Dortmund player when they were eliminated from the Champions League Group Stage this season – and thus dropped down into the Europa League.

A key player for the Gunners is Alexandre Lacazette, but the French Striker is suffering from a knee injury and it is likely that he will miss both legs; this will make life a lot easier for the Milan defence as they won’t be coming up against Aubameyang and Lacazette.

Arsenal’s key players for the huge fixtures will be Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The attacking midfielders are capable of opening up any defence when they play to the best of their ability. A positive for Milan is that both Özil and Mkhitaryan are inconsistent and this could work in the Rossoneri’s favour.

The English outfit faces Manchester City in the League Cup Final this Sunday and a victory would boost morale for the players, giving them an advantage going into the clash against Milan.

Shifting towards the fashion capital, much was expected from Milan after €200m summer transfer campaign financed by the team’s new owners. Former boss Vincenzo Montella drew criticism in the media for struggling to find a suitable formation for his players and a fixed starting eleven. After winning just 6 out his first 14 games in the league, Montella was eventually sacked by Milan on 27 November 2017 following a 0–0 home draw against Torino the day before. 

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Montella’s replacement Gennaro Gattuso got off to a slow start as his side drew 2-2 with bottom of the table Benevento, lost 3-0 to Verona and then lost 2-0 to Atalanta. However, Milan’s season has been turned around by Gattuso as after beating Inter 1-0 in the Coppa Italia Quarter-Final, the Rossoneri are now unbeaten in 11 games, winning 8 of those and keeping 7 clean sheets. The impressive run has included impressive victories over Lazio and Sampdoria and of course the win over Inter.

Milan are facing a difficult run of upcoming fixtures though, and before Arsenal in the first leg of the Round of 16, they clash with Roma and Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico, then square off against Inter in the Derby della Madonnina.

Milan have a chance of reaching the Coppa Italia Final if they are able to get a good result at the Stadio Olimpico, but fatigue might be an issue when they face Arsenal. However, if the red and black don’t necessarily get the results that they want, this could have an impact on the players heading into the Round of 16 fixture.

Gattuso has given Milan an identity and has implemented a 4-3-3 formation that has worked wonders. Players who were underperforming are now playing to the best of their ability, with the likes of Lucas Biglia and Hakan Çalhanoglu having benefitted from the change in formation.

Milan’s biggest strength at this moment in time is their defence that includes a solid centre-back partnership including one of the best defenders in the world, Leonardo Bonucci, and a promising youngster in Alessio Romagnoli. 

Behind the two is the 18 year-old Gianluigi Donnarumma who is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe despite his young age. The powerful Franck Kessié in the midfield will also be crucial in both fixtures if he plays to the best of his ability to cause the Arsenal midfield and defence numerous problems.

20 year-old Patrick Cutrone has made the headlines this season for Milan and the young Italian has scored 13 goals in 31 appearances in all competitions. The Como-born striker is starting to make a name for himself around Europe and Gattuso will more than likely start him to capitalise on Arsenal’s defence which is their weak point. Cutrone will fancy himself to score and his supporting wingers Çalhanoglu and Suso will know that their ability on the ball can break the Arsenal backline.

If Milan are to emerge victorious over Arsenal in the Round of 16, Gennaro Gattuso’s men will need to win at the San Siro and avoid conceding an away goal that could shift the tie. Arsenal will be favourites for the home tie at the Emirates, but if the seven-time champions of Europe have a solid lead heading into the match, there is a good chance they progress through into the Quarter-Finals.

Italian football expert providing the latest Serie A and Azzurri news | News Editor for Italian Football Daily | London based | Twitter: @FinallyAquino

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