Champions League thrills as AC Milan, Benfica advance | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 06.03.2012
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Champions League thrills as AC Milan, Benfica advance

AC Milan and Benfica have progressed to the Champions League quarterfinals after defeating Arsenal and Zenit St Petersburg, respectively, on Tuesday night. Both games went down the wire in tense circumstances.

Arsenal scored three goals to come within a whisker of drawing level with AC Milan on aggregate goals in their second-leg Champions League round of 16 clash, but it wasn't enough, going down 4-3 over two legs. Benfica, meanwhile, scored a goal in the 92nd minute to win 2-0 at home and overturn their first-leg 2-3 loss away to Russian club Zenit St Petersburg.

Having conceded four goals away to AC Milan, the return-leg task facing Arsenal could have been described in only one way: mission impossible. There were no mysteries when it came to how Arsenal would approach the second leg: attack, attack, attack. At their best, the Gunners could claim to be among the finest attacking teams in Europe. Their problem, however, is that, these days, they're seldom at their best.

The first 15 minutes of the match offered the Arsenal faithful a glimmer of hope after French defender Laurent Koscielny found himself unmarked inside the Milan box in the seventh minute, heading a corner ball past Christian Abbiati with ease. 1-0.

Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky celebrates after scoring

Arsenal's three goals weren't enough to get them through to the quarters

In the 26th minute, England international Theo Walcott made a dangerous run to the edge of the box down the right and put a soft ball into the middle, which the Milan defense did a woeful job of trying to clear. The ball fell easily to former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Tomas Rosicky, who hit a sweetly placed pass-shot into the lower right corner of the goal. 2-0.

Benfica dominate

Over in Portugal, meanwhile, Zenit were on the defensive as Benfica pushed forward in wave after wave. Benfica could afford to be a little more patient after their 2-3 first leg loss to Zenit St Petersburg. Jorge Jesus' men lacked the panache of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, however, and were unable to convert their pressure into points.

On a counterattack, Zenit had a chance to go a goal up in the 43rd when Benfica's Brazilian keeper Artur steamed off the goal line after his defense lost possession on the edge of its own box. The ball fell to Zenit's Roman Shirokov, who couldn't get his shot wide enough to beat the rapidly retreating Artur.

Only two minutes later, it was Benfica who seized an attacking opportunity when a delicate pass from Bruno Cesar found Axel Witsel, whose shot was saved by Vyacheslav Malafeev. Witsel was able to back heel the rebound into the path of Maxi Pereira, who coolly shot the ball into the back of the net.

At around this time back in London, Milan's away fans were holding their heads and gesticulating like madmen when 18-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain won Arsenal a penalty in the 41st minute after surging into the box and being brought down by Djamel Mesbah. Robin Van Persie converted from the spot to bring the differential down to just one goal. 3-0 to Arsenal.

Games of two halves

Benfica's Maxi Pereira from Uruguay, right, celebrates with teammates after scoring the opening goal against FC Zenit St. Petersburg

Benfica locked the game up in the third minute of second-half injury time

The second halves in both games were marked by more measured football than in the first. Milan knew they wouldn't be able to sit back and absorb the Arsenal attack as they had unsuccessfully attempted in the first half, and seemed more intent on pressing forward to push the Gunners back into their own half.

Few true goal-scoring opportunities cropped up in the second intervals in both Benfica and London. In the 59th minute, Abbiati made what turned out to be a crucial double save from Gervinho and Van Persie. Had either of those shots gone in, there was every chance Arsenal could have capitalized in the momentum and gone on to victory. It was, however, not to be.

The Italians did just enough to keep the English club from netting a fourth and the game ended 3-0 to the Londoners, meaning Milan now progress to the Champions League quarterfinals on aggregate.

Benfica, meanwhile, were leading 1-0 until the 93rd minute, before Portugal international Nelson Oliviera sealed the game after a swift break from Bruno Cesar, who passed on to Oliviera, whose shot took a deflection and went in over Malafeev. The aggregate score ended 4-3 to the Portuguese club, who now also progress to the next phase of Europe's top-tier tournament.

On Wednesday, Cypriot minnows APOEL FC seek to fulfill a dream when they host French club Lyon, who won the first-leg fixture 1-0. German club Bayer Leverkusen travel to Barcelona, where they will need to score at least three goals to overturn their 1-3 first-leg loss.

Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Martin Kuebler