It’s our first European semi-final since 2009 tonight, as we face Atletico Madrid in the Europa League. It is probably the most difficult tie we could have had from the teams left in the draw, but despite Arsene Wenger saying the Spaniards are a team with no obvious weakness, they come into this game in not their most scintillating form.
Just three wins from their last eight games, with three defeats in there too. Perhaps, like us, there’s been a bit of focus on this competition. They know that their place in La Liga will ensure Champions League football next season, while there was no realistic chance of catching Barcelona so this becomes the big prize.
Which isn’t to say we should expect a timid, off-colour Atletico tonight, because you can be sure Diego Simeone will have his players up for this one. He’ll have watched Arsenal closely over the last few weeks and you don’t need to be some kind of footballing genius to know we’ve got some weaknesses. How quickly, or how much, he tries to exploit them remains to be seen, but they are a team with real quality, and on top of our inability to deal with long balls into the channels, we also struggle to deal with a high press at times.
For Arsene Wenger, there are decisions to make.
David Ospina has been his cup keeper, he made him that promise and my suspicion is he’ll stick with it. There’s a case to be made for Petr Cech, his experience – particularly at this stage of a European competition could well be invaluable. He’d be my choice, although he has had his issues this season, and I don’t think the gap between the two keepers is quite as substantial as it once was.
Given it’s a semi-final though, and Cech has been there and done that in the past, I’d for him, but it remains to be seen if the announcement of his departure will see the manager go full ruthless and go back on his word.
Back four or back three
I see the point that the defenders we have appear to be more suited to a back three than a back four, but I’m not convinced that one system makes us that much more defensively secure. I expect him to stick with the formation he’s been using in recent months, not least because it has given us what the manager craves most: goals.
Since the revitalising 2-0 win in Milan (which came after defeats to Brighton and Man City), we’ve been scoring regularly at home. The sequence of results is: 3-0, 3-1, 3-0, 4-1, 3-2, 4-1. Six games, twenty goals. It’s a very decent scoring record, quite how much it has to do with the system is debatable, but there’s arguing with the stats.
Whether the desire not to concede an away goals comes into it we’ll have to wait and see, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a back four tonight.
I think he would have played Mohamed Elneny in this game, but the Egyptian’s ankle injury which has ruled him out of the rest of the season, means he’ll have to reconsider. We are not replete with options, so I suspect it’ll be Xhaka and Ramsey with Jack Wilshere.
The England man has struggled with form and fitness in recent times, so this is a bit of a gamble, but the only other option is Alex Iwobi – he blows hot and cold, and he was very, very cold against West Ham at the weekend. Either one is a gamble for Wenger, but my feeling is he’ll go with Wilshere’s experience for a game like this.
With Danny Welbeck, a healthy again Mesut Ozil, and Alexandre Lacazette making up the rest of the side, we do have creativity, energy and goals, but how much we’d give to have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang available tonight. It’s a shame but we’ll have to make do, and I did enjoy Welbeck’s response yesterday when asked if the players were hoping to win the Europa League for the soon to be departing manager:
Going into a semi-final in a European competition, you don’t need any extra incentive to win the game. I wanted to win the game before the manager announced he would be leaving, and I want to win it after.
That is a good attitude, and I’m sure the players would have been up for this one anyway. It’s a European semi-final, and although it’s the Europa League the respective quality of the team two teams had Wenger deem it a ‘Champions League night’. That’s a competition we’ve played most of our European football in under Wenger, while Atletico – like we did in 2006 – came tantalisingly close to winning (closer than we did too, which must still hurt).
It is amazing to think this is going to be the first competitive meeting between the two clubs, and the manager summed up what we need in his press conference yesterday:
We know that we face the toughest opponent in this competition. We need a complete performance.
It is going to be mighty difficult, no doubt about it, but maybe our recent FA Cup runs will install some belief into this team. I realise it’s a different competition, but on the way to those Wembley successes we beat every other big side in England, as well as Sp*rs, and even in 2017 we were underdogs in the semi-final against Man City and in the final against Chelsea.
We do have something about us in cup competitions, but there’s no doubt doing it over two legs against a team of this quality is a different proposition. Nevertheless, this is as excited as I can remember feeling for a game in quite some time. It’s a big occasion, hopefully the stadium is rocking tonight, and hopefully we get the kind of performance from these players that it demands. We’ve been underdogs in Europe before as well, and come through to surprise people.
For some extra reading this morning, check out an excellent Tim Stillman which explores the values of Arsenal, whatever they might, and there’s still time for our bonus podcast previewing tonight’s opposition and beyond.
Now, we just have to wait all day until the main event, let’s hope we can create a bit of history tonight ahead of next week’s second leg.
Catch you later for the game.