London (AFP) – Danny Welbeck was accused of diving to win the penalty that inspired Arsenal to book their place into the Europa League quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over AC Milan on Thursday.
After taking the first leg 2-0 in Milan last week, Arsene Wenger’s side were in danger of blowing their lead when Hakan Calhanoglu put the Italians ahead in the first half at the Emirates Stadium.
But Welbeck turned the last 16 second leg back in Arsenal’s favour moments after Calhanoglu’s goal as the striker appeared to dive to win a penalty that he converted himself.
Welbeck’s theatrics were condemned by pundits, while Swedish referee Jonas Eriksson was slammed for being tricked by the play-acting.
“It’s a definite dive,” former Arsenal defender Martin Keown told BT Sport, while ex-Tottenham star Jermaine Jenas said: “Welbeck doesn’t feel any contact apart from his own feet connecting with themselves and he goes over.
“The referee and assistant referee completely buy it.”
With their nerves steadied, Arsenal eased through 5-1 on aggregate thanks to second half goals from Granit Xhaka and Welbeck.
Following on from Sunday’s Premier League victory over Watford, Arsenal’s third successive win in all competitions provides a measure of breathing space for Wenger after a miserable run sparked fresh calls for his dismissal.
Looking certain to miss out on a top four finish in the league, Arsenal must win the Europa League to qualify for next season’s Champions League — a target that seems essential for Wenger to avoid the sack.
They remain on course but as usual it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Gennaro Gattuso was mocked in some quarters for deploying former Liverpool striker Fabio Borini at right-back, but the Milan boss was proved right in the opening seconds.
Borini made a good run before whipping a cross towards Andre Silva, who should have done better than fire into the side-netting.
Arsenal’s anxiety levels were rising when captain Laurent Koscielny limped off after taking a blow to his back.
– Dubious circumstances –
The Gunners were vulnerable and Milan took advantage to snatch the lead in the 35th minute.
When Ricardo Rodriguez slipped the ball inside to Calhanoglu, the Arsenal defence backed off just long enough for the Turkey midfielder to rifle a blistering 25-yard strike past David Ospina.
But crucially Arsenal were able to draw level in dubious circumstances four minutes later.
Welbeck’s run took him past Rodriguez into the six-yard box and he threw himself to the turf after the slightest contact from the Milan defender.
It was enough to persuade Eriksson to point to the spot and Welbeck, back on his feet, calmly stroked home the penalty for his first goal since January.
Arsenal supporters had stayed away from the Watford game in their droves in protest at Wenger, prompting the manager to admit he was worried about how they would win back the absentees.
But there were far fewer empty seats in the 60,000-capacity arena and more vibrant mood undoubtedly helped Arsenal maintain their momentum.
Wenger’s side went close to a second goal as Henrikh Mkhitaryan headed just wide from Welbeck’s cross before Jack Wilshere’s blast was repelled by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Needing two goals to advance, Milan were committing more bodies forward and Suso was just off-target before the visitors had a penalty appeal turned down when Silva was bundled over by Hector Bellerin.
But Arsenal put the result beyond doubt in the 71st minute thanks to a mistake from Donnarumma.
Xhaka’s long-range effort should have simple for Donnarumma, but instead he somehow pushed the ball into his own net.
Rubbing salt into Milan’s wounds, it was Welbeck who finished them off with a close-range header in the 87th minute.
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