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Thursday, March 8, 2012
Milan advances after spirited Arsenal comeback falls just short
LONDON — Milan narrowly avoided the greatest turnaround in Champions League history on Tuesday, reaching the quarterfinals despite a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at Arsenal.
The English club was rated a 33-1 shot by bookmakers to advance after losing the first leg 4-0 but closed to within one goal of the seven-time champions before halftime through Laurent Koscielny, Tomas Rosicky and Robin van Persie.
Both goalkeepers made crucial second-half stops to keep the score 3-0, and Milan tightened up to progress 4-3 over two matches and narrowly avoid another embarrassing turnaround in the Champions League.
"I really don't understand what happened in the first half," Milan defender Philippe Mexes said. "The approach was wrong and hopefully it won't happen again. We played better in the second half, with less fear, and fortunately we managed to qualify."
Milan was on the receiving end of the biggest comeback in Champions League history when it surrendered a 4-1 advantage to Deportivo La Coruna by losing the second leg of a 2004 quarterfinal 4-0. It also suffered the biggest turnaround in a Champions League final by giving up a 3-0 halftime lead over Liverpool. Liverpool fought back to 3-3 and won the 2005 title in a shootout.
Benfica also advanced Tuesday, beating Zenit St. Petersburg 2-0 to overhaul a 3-2 first-leg deficit and go through 4-3 on aggregate.
Maxi Pereira put Benfica ahead on away goals in first-half injury time and Nelson Oliveira made the game safe in second-half injury time.
Koscielny gave Arsenal hope in the seventh minute, heading in totally unmarked from a corner kick. Milan's shaky defense allowed Rosicky a similar amount of space 19 minutes later, failing to clear the ball to allow the Czech Republic international to pass it into the net from just inside the area.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain won a 43rd-minute penalty when he sprinted between Djamel Mesbah and Antonio Nocerino, tumbling to the ground after clipping Mesbah's heels.
Van Persie dispatched the resulting kick for 3-0 at halftime and almost drew Arsenal level on aggregate in the 59th, putting a rebound straight at Christian Abbiati after the goalkeeper had blocked Gervinho's attempt.
Arsenal's hunt for a fourth goal began to leave space after halftime, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic shot just wide after intercepting a loose pass from goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny.
"We have paid the price for a bad first game," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. "But we have given everything. That is all you can do at the top level."
Chelsea goes through
LONDON — Chelsea reached the F.A. Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday, winning a replay 2-0 at Birmingham in its first match since firing coach Andre Villas-Boas.
Juan Mata and Raul Meireles scored second-half goals to take the Premier League club through to a meeting with another second-tier side, Leicester.
Roberto Di Matteo, who has stepped up from his role as Villas-Boas' assistant to lead the team for the rest of the season, left Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Essien and Daniel Sturridge out of his starting lineup.
Although the influence of experienced players was widely cited by British newspapers as being central in Chelsea's poor performances under Villas-Boas, Di Matteo's decision may have been motivated by a desire to keep them fresh for the club's ailing challenge for Champions League qualification.
"My thoughts tonight go to Andre," Di Matteo said. "It was important tonight to go through to the next round, for our club and for our supporters.
"We have two months left to the end of the season. We have to try to achieve what we have set ourselves for this season. It's only possible if the 25 players in the squad are a little bit unselfish and work together."