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The build-up and banter to Wednesday's Champions League clash between Milan and Arsenal at the San Siro produced little to unhinge the well-laid narrative. Milan hadn't won against English opposition since their victorious 2007 Champions League campaign, exiting the tournament to an English team three times in the last five years (Arsenal in 2008, Manchester United in 2009, and Tottenham in 2011). Massimiliano Allegri's men had already had a trial by press, forums, and British punditry, and they were condemned, almost obligated, to lay down for the Wengerian juggernaut, even if it has been sputtering for a good part of the season in England.
Fan forums around the internet are not supposed to be a bulwark against chest-thumping; indeed, chest-thumping is one of their purposes. It is ritual. It is one of the preferred, electronic alternatives to the Arsenal vandals who assembled outside Milan's Piazza del Duomo. What is astonishing is the ability of some English commentators to vandalize common sense. The commentary I was following in Canada on Sportsnet was innocuous for the most part, its rather neutral tone interrupted only by former West Ham player Tony Gale insisting that "this Milan side aren't really that good."
It was a delusional response to what the left-leaning Italian paper La Repubblica called a "massacre." I almost got the impression that this was Gale adjusting to the nightmare unfolding before him, a symptom of post-traumatic stress before the trauma was actually complete. You almost imagined him saying it as he was rocking back and forth, arms around knees.
Perhaps Arsenal did not play that well, but suggesting that they lost to themselves rather than a Milan team that barely let them complete three meaningful passes all game is comforting. The logic is, of course, simple: once Arsenal come out of this self-inflicted stupor, the hierarchy of football, atop which the Premier League beams down at the rest, will be set right again.
What attests to how comprehensively Arsenal were beaten is Arsene Wenger's inability to come up with one real excuse from that inexhaustible source he possesses in the post-match press conference. Before the game there had been talk of the abysmal condition of the field, with some commentators gleefully reaching for the trite Machiavellian metaphors to suggest, jokingly, the conspiratorial at work. All that talk is in abeyance for now.
What is needed after yesterday's match is to provide a proper context that stretches a little further back than February 15th, 2012. Just as Milan's surrender to English opposition for the last few years was not proof of Italian football's irredeemable decline, so too Milan's crushing win over Arsenal is not proof of the opposite. Neither is Napoli's win over Manchester City earlier this season. Italian football has several problems, like the state of their stadia, racism and a fall in the UEFA co-efficient rankings, with which to contend, and the euphoria of European nights like yesterday only banish them temporarily.
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Even if for a few moments, Gale actually managed to see and speak in tabloid on Wednesday, unsurprisingly perhaps, for he does write for The Sun. And yet he is not even the worst offender. Indeed, his comments were mild compared to what the now disgraced Andy Gray served up in 2007, when he foolishly claimed that Manchester United had Milan "running scared" after a 3-2 semi-final first leg win at Old Trafford. Milan buried Manchester United 3-0 in the return leg.
Of course, there were other notions that were totally discredited yesterday, like Ibrahimovic not turning up for big games, but I chose to focus on the commentary for a reason. Arguably, English commentators have more of a responsibility to strive for some semblance of impartiality because they operate in and with the most widely spoken language in the world. Their words will and do have a greater resonance than commentary in Italian or Spanish. And yet the Grays and Gales are the ones who are parochial, relying on outdated and misplaced notions, unwilling to come up to speed with the nuances of the Italian game. A bit like trolls and tortoises.