Champions’ League: Day 6 (Arsenal 2 – Moskow 0 & Kyiv 1 – Inter Milan 1)

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Football
December 10th, 2003 • 11:51 am

It was a highly dramatic and hugely entertaining evening again in the sixth and final day of the Champions’ League qualifying round. It was a crucial game for Arsenal, who still had it all to do in order to qualify for the round of 16 of the Champions’ League — but then, so did the other teams in the group.

We didn’t get to see the Arsenal game here in Canada. They show us the games that are shown on ESPN in the US, and since there is a strong Latin American flavour to Spanish and Italian teams, it usually means that we have to watch those teams’ European games. Never mind that there is probably as much — if not more — interest in English teams in Canada as there is in Italian or Spanish teams… Such are the laws of the international TV market.

So that means that we were shown the Inter Milan game in the Ukrainian capital instead. I was hoping that they would still keep us updated on what was going on in the other game in the group, as they usually do for games that they don’t show and that take place at the same time. Then I realized that, because of the time difference between Eastern and Western Europe, the game in Ukraine was probably taking place a hour earlier… But no, in fact both games took place simultaneously, which meant that it was pretty late in Ukraine already — and bitterly cold too. (It is December after all, and their regular season is already over. But the pitch was in surprisingly good shape.) Add to that that they only had 16 (if I heard correctly) travelling Milan fans in the audience (versus over 80,000 Ukrainian fans), and you can imagine that the stage was set for a dramatic night of football.

The beginning of the game was very tentative. Soon came news that Robert Pirès had opened the score at Highbury, which was good to hear indeed, even though it was still early — and Arsenal have not always been able to hold their lead in the recent past. The first half in Ukraine was fairly uneventful, although there were a few close calls at both ends of the pitch.

The high drama was for the second half. With Arsenal leading, it meant that a draw would effectively eliminate both Milan and Kyiv from the round of 16. So something had to give. Milan finally managed a goal on — what else? — a set piece. Then the Ukrainians had no choice but to go for it. It meant that they would be taking risks defensively — but they were able to make up for their technical shortcomings by giving everything they had, and after several very close calls, they finally managed to equalize through their Brazilian striker, in the middle of a strangely static Italian defence.

(In the mean time, we were told that Freddie Ljunberg had given Arsenal a two-goal advantage at Highbury, and qualification was looking like a sure thing for them now.)

There were only 5 minutes of regular time left, but everything was still possible. Milan had to give their all because a draw would eliminate them as well as Kyiv. (They couldn’t exactly count on Moskow getting two goals back in the last 5 minutes at Highbury.) And Kyiv had to give their all because, well, a draw would eliminate them from all European competitions. (Milan would still go through to the UEFA Cup, but that’s small consolation for a team of that calibre.) The last 8 minutes (5 + 3 of extra time) were extraordinarily tense. Several crucial chances were missed — and both teams crashed out of the Champions’ League.

The Ukrainians looked more disappointed than the Italians after the final whistle, but that’s probably because they had really given their all, especially in the second half — in front of so many fans. Inter went out through la petite porte, as we say in French. All their skill and big money players were not enough to secure a win and qualification — in, admittedly, pretty rough conditions.

After the game, TSN showed us the highlights of the Highbury game, which included not only the two goals, but also a Russian player being sent off during the second half. So it doesn’t sound like it was too hard for Arsenal — but I am sure that there were some tense moments there as well.

What a turnaround, though! Arsenal have really defied the odds, not only by qualifying after all, but by even finishing top of their group! It was, to be sure, a very tight group and it’s the cumulative results that created such a possibility for the English team even after two losses and a draw in the first three games. But still! What a group stage for this particular set of four teams! I don’t remember getting such excitement from a Champions’ League qualifying round ever… Yes, Arsenal could and should have made it much easier for themselves — but we should also give credit to the Russian and Ukrainian teams, who were surprisingly strong in spite of their obvious shortcomings and also took full advantage of the rather unforgiving conditions in such parts of the world.

So what’s next? The draw for the round of 16 takes place on Friday. No more “second qualifying round” non-sense. The high-stakes games for everyone start now — well, next February. But this will surely be a huge confidence boost for Arsenal. From early elimination favourites, they have become one of the teams to watch (and to beat) in the next stages of the competition. Who can tell today how far they’ll go? As far as I am concerned, they have already fulfilled their contract, and whatever happens next will be icing on the (already very rich) cake.

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