Arsenal face AC Milan tonight in the second leg of the Round of 16 Europa League clash, carrying a 2-0 lead from the first game. It’s a healthy position to be in, but if you’ve watched us with any regularity in recent years, you will understand this is not an open and shut case by any means.
I realise the perceived quality of opposition is very different, but after beating Östersunds FK 3-0, we let them score twice in the return visit so the lead we have going into tonight’s game can be whittled away pretty quickly unless we’re careful. And by careful I mean organised, disciplined and don’t play like twats (sorry for the early morning technical jargon).
There’s good news on the injury front as Shkodran Mustafi was in full training yesterday after going off against Watford, so you assume he’ll slot in alongside a nicely rested Laurent Koscielny at the centre of the defence. Both Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are in contention again after knee and back problems respectively, while as expected Aaron Ramsey will be involved after being left out at the weekend.
It’s only up front where injuries still really cause us a problem with Alexandre Lacazette back running again after his surgery but still not quite fit enough to take part, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is cup-tied, meaning Danny Welbeck will go looking for his first goal since January.
Mohamed Elneny’s performance against Watford at the weekend might well push him into contention for tonight. It’s a game which we have to manage as well as possible. It’s not a shoot-out, it’s not one that we have to go hell for leather in, and the Egyptian gives us a measure of control that could well be important.
He is solid and tidy in possession, defensively disciplined, and as he showed in his last appearance there’s a bit more to his passing than the safety first option if required. Still, when you need someone to give and go, take it back, move it on again and keep possession, then he ticks those boxes very well and could get the nod at the expense of Jack Wilshere who was a little more ragged in the first game.
It’ll be interesting to see exactly how we approach this one. I don’t think we’re good enough defensively to simply sit on the 2-0. We’ve been too flaky at the back this season to be confident of doing that. At the same time, Milan have to come out and play a bit, so efficiency on the counter-attack and making the most of the spaces they leave – particularly as the game goes on – will be really important.
Arsene Wenger did not sound unlike himself when he spoke about how he sees tonight:
This is one opportunity we have and we have to take it. We did half a job in the first game but Europe gives you a psychological problem you have to master. When you have won away from home, you have to finish the job at home but it is not easy because it always puts the team who is playing against you in the position of having nothing to lose. You have to face the fact that the best way to approach the game is to try to win it.
We’ve seen in the first game how good they are. It was quite a tight game even though we came away with a 2-0 victory. They’ve turned a corner as well with their new manager, so they’re on a bit of a good run and it’s going to be important for us to stay focused from the beginning.
We can’t take this one lightly at all.
The Welshman also underlined the importance of this game to what remains of our season. All our football eggs are in the Europa League basket now, the reward of a trophy and a place in next season’s Champions League is going to be the driver for the rest of this campaign. We saw how that affected the performance in Milan, it was in stark contrast to the unfocused Arsenal we witnessed lose 2-1 to Brighton in the previous game, so let’s hope we get more of the same this evening.
A couple of quick things to finish this morning. Firstly, big congratulations to Arsenal Women who won the FA WSL Continental Cup for a record fifth time, beating Man City Women 1-0 thanks to a goal from Vivianne Miedema.
Tim Stillman spoke to captain Kim Little after the game, you can read that exclusive interview here.
And secondly, if you’re an Arseblog Member on Patreon, you can find a new episode of My Arse, in which I talk to musician, songwriter and record producer Bernard Butler. Many of you will know him from his time with Suede in the 90s, and we talk about music, studios, Johnny Marr and lots more including, of course, Arsenal. It’s a great chat which I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
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Righto, that’s your lot, catch you later on for the game.