Mikel Arteta has described tonight’s Europa League Round of 32 second leg against Benfica as a ‘final‘.
Some might roll their eyes, and I understand why, but for a manager and this team after the season we’ve had so far, it’s true. And it’s not just true of tonight, it’s true of every game we face between now and May. When you’ve lost 11 in the league, every fixture is huge, and when the Europa League represents your last chance at silverware, it’s obviously important for a club like Arsenal.
I’ve said it before, we’re in classic ‘the next game is the most important one’ territory. Perhaps down the line a bit we might have to prioritise, or think about that at least, but for now it’s all about getting a result, then focusing on the next one.
The team news for tonight is that Rob Holding can’t make the trip due to concussion protocols, after he took a whack in the head against Man City and the ref played on. I don’t think he was going to start anyway, with David Luiz and Gabriel ready to come back into the side, but let’s hope the more senior of the Brazilians has an on night and not one of the other ones.
The other big development is the return of Thomas Partey who has traveled to Athens with the squad. I can only assume that we’re not doing anything risky with him, and that the stark lesson we learned earlier in the season has taught us not to take any chances. I’d be surprised if he started, and I think it’ll be Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos in the middle, but what a nice option it’ll be to have him on the bench if we need him in the last 30 minutes. Ideally, we play well enough to be in a position to give him 20 stress-free minutes at the end, to get a little match-fitness into his legs before Leicester on Sunday.
Beyond that, I can’t see Arteta doing anything radically different from the first leg. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had an off night, he should have scored, but him up front with Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard and Bukayo Saka behind him worked. We made the chances to have this game out of sight, so for me it’s very much a case of ‘same again, please’ – just with better finishing.
Of course there are worries. When you don’t win a first leg and spurn chances there’s always the possibility it’ll come back to bite you on the arse. As Arsenal fans we’ve seen this team, more than once, fashion an unlikely or at times remarkable European exit. The looming prospect of being the first team to ever be eliminated on away goals despite playing both legs ‘away’ feels like the kind of thing that has our name all over it. The latest addition to the pub quiz lexicon where a series of increasingly insane sounding questions all has an Arsenal related answer.
At the same time, I didn’t see much from Benfica last week that should particularly scare us going into this game. If we can make the chances again, I think we’ll take them and I think we’ll have enough to win this game. To me, it feels like our most dangerous opponent is ourselves. Don’t do anything stupid, and we should be fine. Make the most of the periods when we’re on top, and we’ll be fine. Stay focused and don’t allow a few seconds to completely change the complexion of a game (like Wolves), and we’ll have enough to win.
We’re a very difficult team to trust though, I get that. You can’t watch us all season long and declare complete confidence in what’s going to happen tonight. That’s one of the challenges we face, is to convince people we’re capable of producing the good stuff more often than not. In fact, it’s not to convince people, it’s to do just do it. Folks will get on board as a matter of course if we do.
So, let’s do it.
As ever we’ll have a live blog for you – the game kicks-off at 17.55 by the way – and all the post-game stuff on Arseblog News. We’ll also be recording an Arsecast straight after so that’ll be ready for you to download first thing in the morning (or from midnight on Patreon).
For some extra reading this morning, Tim has written about Hector Bellerin this week, and I won’t say much else but he echoes a lot of my thoughts about him. Have a read.
Right, catch you later on for the game. Until then.