After a strangely quiet night in the Champions League last night, in which nothing of any real consequence happened, attention turns to the true soul of continental football: the Europa League.
Arsenal take a 2-0 lead into tonight’s quarter-final second leg against Napoli and it is, all things considered, a decent position to be in. The things that have been considered (by me), include:
- Our away form in general
- Our away form in Europe where we’ve lost to BATE and Rennes
- The fact we’re not at home
- The game being played in Italy
- The hectic schedule which is bound to cause some fatigue
- The injury to Denis Suarez which robs us of our best player and … haha, sorry
But all of these many and varied things have to be seen as factors, however, I think we’re in pretty decent shape and the lead from the first leg give us a fantastic chance to go qualify this evening. The away goals rule means that if we score one, they have to score four times in 90 minutes to go through, and that makes the opposition’s life somewhat precarious. They need to come out and score, but if they leave too much space there’s the potential for Arsenal to exploit that space and hit them on the break.
As an aside, it would be curious to see this so-called ‘away goals rule’ come into play in a big European game because I can’t think of any example in recent memory when it might have been a consideration.
So, what about the team? I think we’ll play with the back three. Sokratis is available and sure to start; I suspect the quality of the opposition and the occasion means we’ll ask Laurent Koscielny to push himself through another game before resting him against Crystal Palace on Sunday; and then it’s one of Nacho Monreal or Shkodran Mustafi. I suspect the former, but the Spaniard looked a little leggy last week and played the full 90 against Watford, so much will depend on how physically capable he’s viewed to play another intense fixture in such a short space of time.
The fact that we left Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac on the bench at Vicarage Road on Monday tells me that Unai Emery views them as important cogs in tonight’s machine. The former provided an assist for Aaron Ramsey’s opening goal and was a threat down the right hand side all night, while the latter got himself into a series of fantastic positions on the other flank but couldn’t quite find the right final ball because he was having one of those ‘I’ll just blast it as hard as I can and see what happens’ nights. If he could take just a little more time to add some subtlety to his passing when he gets into those positions then he could cause Napoli some real problems.
In midfield the manager has a full complement to choose from. Ramsey and Torreira were fantastic last week, but with Granit Xhaka back his participation comes into play. He’s not a player who regularly gets left on the bench when fit, so it’ll be interesting to see what Emery is thinking later on. He could play those three, with Ramsey behind the two strikers – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette – or use Mesut Ozil as his attacking midfielder with Ramsey and Xhaka in midfield. There are definitely options, and I’m not convinced he’ll use both the strikers from the start. The need to keep something in reserve should we need it will be a consideration, and having a proven goalscorer on the bench provides some security but we’ll find out later this evening.
As ever, our approach will be key. I don’t think we can realistically set up in a way which looks to simply protect our two goal lead. We’re just not good enough defensively to do that, and our best performances this season have come when we’ve shown some attacking intent and a willingness to take the game to the opposition. It’s a balancing act, of course, something Emery spoke about at his press conference yesterday:
Our first target is to win. When you score when playing matches like tomorrow’s match, you can create a good advantage. We know it’s going to be very difficult because they can score two or more goals with their attacking players. Our mentality tomorrow is to play the match thinking to win. We want to defend as well.
We want to defend, we want to attack, we want to win. Can’t argue with that, if only it were that simple though. Still, I think the fact we kept a clean sheet last week is hugely important for tonight, and if there’s a strength to this Arsenal side it’s in what we can do from an attacking point of view. There’s enough quality and variety to cause them problems, even away from home, and I don’t think they were especially impressive defensively last week so if we can cause them problems in key areas as we did in the first leg, this game is there for us.
I can see them scoring too, to be fair, but I’m counting on our fire power, and the two goal lead from the first leg, to be the decisive factors tonight. That’s not to say I don’t have a little voice in the back of my mind which is nagging about how Arsenal can Arsenal this right in the Arsenal, but I feel strangely confident about this one. Let’s hope that’s not misplaced.
As ever, we’ll have a live blog for you to follow the game on, plus all the post-match stuff, report, ratings etc, on Arseblog News. Catch you later for the game, and please continue to enjoy the strange amount of nothing that’s happening in the football world in general this morning.