Arsenal predicted XI vs Villarreal as Bellerin keeps place but Odegaard and Martinelli miss out

Every time we pick a predicted XI for a Europa League game it seems as though the set-up is something along the lines of how this match is the biggest of Arsenal’s season so far.

With European qualification via the Premier League having been more or less a lost cause since the turn of the year, each match on the continent seems to have taken on greater significance than the last.

But with the stage well and truly set for a classic evening at the Emirates on Thursday night as Unai Emery returns to stop his successor from taking a vital step forward in his long-term project in north London, it seems as though the magnitude of this fixture is incomparable to any other that has taken place this campaign.

Mikel Arteta has generally tended to get it right when it comes to these big matches.

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When you think back to the FA Cup semi-final and final against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively last season, the Community Shield victory in August, the win at Old Trafford in November or the Boxing Day win over the Blues, the Spaniard has delivered under pressure.

But with the stakes high last week, Arteta got it wrong.

Playing Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine backfired, while leaving Dani Ceballos on the pitch for long enough to get sent off and utilising Granit Xhaka as a left-back against the pace of Samuel Chukwueze almost proved a fatal error.

Luckily, though, after a questionable penalty won by the individual brilliance of Bukayo Saka and finished by the composure of Nicolas Pepe, Arsenal are still alive in this tie.

Arteta has got his second chance, and he simply cannot afford to waste it.

While we’ve mentioned the forwards who contributed to the Gunners’ unlikely revival last week the intervention of Bernd Leno to stop Gerard Moreno from making it 3-0 in the second half cannot be forgotten.

The German was left out at the weekend as Mat Ryan came in to keep his first clean sheet in an Arsenal shirt, but normality will surely be restored at the Emirates tomorrow.

In front of Leno, Arteta’s hand has somewhat been forced by circumstance in choosing his central defensive pairing.

David Luiz was forced off through injury during Arsenal's 2-0 victory over Newcastle United at St. James' Park. (Photo by Lindsey Parnaby - Pool/Getty Images)
David Luiz was forced off through injury during Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Newcastle United at St. James’ Park. (Photo by Lindsey Parnaby – Pool/Getty Images)

While an unexpected return for David Luiz cannot be ruled out following his hamstring injury at St. James’ Park, the Brazilian’s likely absence, combined with Pablo Mari‘s worst display in an Arsenal shirt last Thursday, surely means that Rob Holding and Gabriel will be chosen at the heart of the back four.

The duo haven’t exactly shone together when paired since the turn of the year, but earlier in the season it was them who helped the Gunners to one of the best defensive records in the Premier League.

To the right of them, it seemed nailed on that Calum Chambers would be starting, but after an excellent display against Newcastle, Hector Bellerin – who up until recently was Arteta’s trusted choice in big matches – will be selected to play instead.

At left-back, Kieran Tierney may have returned to training but it would be something bordering on miraculous if the Scot is deemed fit enough to start at the Emirates on Thursday night.

This means that if he is true to form then Arteta will continue to play Xhaka in the unfamiliar position. It didn’t work against Villarreal last time out, but the hope is that he will not be so exposed this time around.

This though starts to create some problems in the midfield, particularly when you consider that Ceballos is suspended following his first leg dismissal.

Given his error-prone run in the Europa League knockout stages this season, most Arsenal fans may not view that as such a bad thing but balance is a key part of the way Arteta likes to play his teams and without the Real Madrid loanee available, the left side of the Gunners central midfield lacks a distinct offensive presence.

Arsenal’s sparsity in depth in the position means that Mohamed Elneny is the only player who can come into the side and link the play on the left hand side, if you assume that Thomas Partey will resume his right midfield birth.

Dani Ceballos was sent off in Arsenal's Europa League semi final first leg against Villarreal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Dani Ceballos was sent off in Arsenal’s Europa League semi final first leg against Villarreal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

The Egyptian is simply not as good as his fellow squad members when it comes to the intricate build up Ceballos specialises in, in the left half-spaces, but if Arteta is hell-bent on playing Xhaka at left-back, this is the only option he has left available to him.

This may well impact the performance of Pepe, who has played a vital role in maintaining the width on Arsenal’s left flank in the absence of Tierney in recent matches and was man of the match in Spain.

With him playing on the left, Arteta will likely choose Emile Smith Rowe to fill in the number 10 role as his natural inclination is to drift into this area of the pitch to link play, while Martin Odegaard tends to operate closer to the right.

Saka has been so good this season that he could well be trusted to occupy Alfonso Pedraza all on his own, meaning the England international will have an important role functioning on the right side of attack.

Up front, while not fully physically fit, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will almost definitely start the game as Arteta’s only trusted senior centre-forward option.

The Gabon international has made an incredible recovery from a malaria diagnosis that saw him lose four kilos in the space of just three days, and while his body may be tired his mind remains sharp as seen by the movement for the goal at St. James’ Park on Sunday.

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It’s not been an easy season for the Arsenal captain by any stretch of the imagination, but the short-term nature of football means that come Friday morning his crucial goals in a Europa League semi-final could be all anyone remembers in years to come.

This of course means Gabriel Martinelli misses out, but you get the feeling the players that start this game won’t be the only ones who influence this match.

Arsenal predicted XI vs Villarreal – Leno; Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Xhaka; Partey, Elneny; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Aubameyang.

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