Five reasons to be confident ahead of Benfica tie
Arsenal’s emphatic performance against Leeds on Sunday was a timely return to form after back to back defeats in the Premier League at the hands of Wolves and Aston Villa had left our promising Christmas run seeming a distant memory.
However, the Gunners fast-flowing football was too much for the Yorkshire side to handle with our impressive attacking display leaving plenty of room for optimism ahead of tonight’s Europa League round of 32 first-leg tie against Benfica at the Stadio Olimpico. Below, we zone in on five key reasons why we as the Arsenal faithful should be feeling upbeat on progression to the last-16 of the competition.
Hale End graduates continue to shine
Another week, another dazzling display from Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe- something that is fast becoming routine for the pair. Throughout Arsenal’s 4-2 victory on Sunday the duo were dynamic as ever, with the two combining beautifully before Ceballos’s clever ball teed up Bellerin for his first goal of the season, putting Arsenal three ahead just before half-time. In just ten premier league appearances Smith Rowe has now collected four assist leaving him top in the assist charts amongst the Arsenal squad. Saka was incredibly unlucky not to win a penalty midway through the first half after his fierce run into the box saw him brushed aside by Cooper with Stuart Attwell pointing to the spot. Nevertheless, a VAR intervention saw the decision overturned.
Not to worry, moments later our No 7 was quick to pounce on Meslier dwelling on the ball from a pass back, resulting in the Leeds’s keeper fouling him just inside the box. Saka’s livewire presence caused Alioski problems all game with the defender hauled off in the 53rd minute after a retched display. So much for his bullish attitude in the build-up to the game eh? There is no question that Mikel Arteta will be relying on the pair to transfer their bright domestic form into our quest for European glory, but with the pair currently firing on all cylinders, we can expect another strong turnout from the Englishmen.
Auba back to his best
Aubameyang in rich goalscoring form, a sight to truly behold. We were treated to a hattrick from our main man on Sunday, his first for the club domestically. He started things with a clever flash finish catching Meslier at his near post, followed by a typical composed penalty (41) and completed the trio with a far-post header latching on to Smith Rowe’s cross. It was our No 14’s fourth goal in his last five league appearances, more than he had managed in his previous 16 league outings. After a tough couple of weeks absent from the side dealing with personal issues regarding his mother’s health, his return to goalscoring form indicates Aubameyang is ready to kick on and make his way up the goalscoring charts. Arteta will be looking to build on Aubameyang’s momentum and Benfica present the chance for him to do just that. He has proven time and time again that he can be relied upon in big cup games, and tomorrow night will be no different.
Promising signs from Ødegaard
When the line-ups were announced prior to kick-off on Sunday, Ødegaard’s inclusion in the No 10 role I think it’s safe to say, was met with excitement by all Arsenal fans. Taking up the central role, he operated as part of a three behind Aubameyang as the spearhead (with Saka on the right and Smith Rowe on the left). Although it was Aubameyang who stole the spotlight, Ødegaard’s performance reflected his reputation as an intelligent and silky playmaker. The Norwegian effectively interchanged passes with Dani Cebellos throughout. In fact, the two Real Madrid loanees shared more passes than any other players. Ceballos found Ødegaard eight times with Ødegaard returning the favour 11. His ability to both instigate and react to sudden attacks on the opposition was clear to see. His effective one-two with Saka in the 34th minute underlined just that, leading to Stuart Attwell blowing for a penalty after Saka was judged to have been barged over by Cooper, only for it to be over-turned by VAR.
His second half display was comprised of a series of delicate touches and jaw-dropping skill but also included the awareness to drop deep when Arsenal faced a briefly shaky spell as Leeds pulled two goals back. After only starting three times for Madrid in the LaLiga this season, and twice in the Champions League, it was expectedl that Ødegaard would have to be eased gradually into the starting XI. However, after an impressive 78-minuete display against arguably the most energetic side in the league, it is clear that there is a lot more to come from our Norwegian. With Pepe expected to return to the line-up tonight, Ødegaard could find himself dropping to the bench with Smith Rowe returning to the No 10 role. There is no doubt that at some stage Arteta will turn to Ødegaard who will without question be ready to build on his encouraging start to life in north London.
Room for rotation
After last year’s Europa League exit at the hands of Olympiacos in the round of 32, Arteta will by no means be taking our first leg lightly with the potential of the away goal rule proving decisive, as it turned out to be last year at Arsenal’s expense. With Matt Ryan’s signature in the January transfer window we have provided suitable cover for Leno, and if the Australian is indeed called into action, his vast Premier League and Europa League experience with Valencia would pave the way for a strong performance in Rome. I do however, expect Arteta to stick with Leno due to the significance of the tie and the importance in minimising the goals conceded during the away leg.
Within the backline we should not be surprised with a solitary change with Gabriel Magalhaes making way for the return of Rob Holding. With the Englishman’s reassured and resolute defending in recent weeks we can be expect a composed performance from him. The Gunners received a major boost with the news that Kieran Tierney had travelled with the squad, however a starting place may come too soon for the Scott. A vital figure to have on the bench nevertheless. In midfield Xhaka and Ceballos seem like the obvious choice, but Mohammed Elneny may be thrusted into the starting XI where he has proven to be a solid figure throughout the group stages. Pepe no doubt will also return to the side and with his performances significantly improving over the last few weeks his resurgence can expect to continue tonight. He will hope he can add to his rich goalscoring form in this year’s campaign with the winger already notching three goals and three assists over the group stages.
Fresh from his Premier League hattrick last weekend our club captain will almost certainly get the nod ahead of Alexandre Lacazette in the hope he can continue to build on his rich goalscoring form of late. Lacazette has nevertheless been influential this season, and has stepped up crucially in the absence of Aubameyang for large parts of the season with ten goals in all competitions. The Frenchman would no doubt take his opportunity whether that indeed comes from the starting XI or the bench.
Alternative route to Champions League qualification
A return to Tuesday and Wednesday night football accompanied by the iconic Champions League anthem is what every Arsenal fan craves. Currently embarking on our fourth Europa League campaign the award of Champions league football on the back of winning the European competition will serve as a strong incentive for Arteta’s men. Our inconsistent form in the Premier League leaves us facing an uphill battle to break into the top four, with the top six now seeming like a more realistic target. Committing to a serious charge to the Europa League final will strongly be on Arteta’s mind with the opportunity to further add to his silverware already achieved in his tenure so far. Benfica will prove a stern test as an experienced and well driven Portuguese side however the Gunners will be aiming to capitalise on their fragile league position and continue to build on last Sunday’s convincing performance against Leeds.
There is no doubt this current squad has the ability to triumph in the competition and the quest continues tonight. Come on the Arsenal.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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