Arsenal will be looking to join north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the last-16 of the UEFA Europa League when they lock horns with Benfica in the second-leg of their last-32 clash in Athens this evening, kick-off 5:55pm.
The Gunners, who were defeated 1-0 by Premier League table-toppers Manchester City on Sunday afternoon, will travel to Greece with the tie poised at 1-1 following last Thursday’s first-leg in Italy.
After falling behind to Pizzi’s penalty, the Gunners responded just two minutes later through Bukayo Saka, ensuring Mikel Arteta’s side secured an all-important away goal ahead of this evening’s second-leg.
Although, because of current coronavirus travel restrictions in place, tonight’s second-leg is being staged in Athens, Arsenal are the home team this evening, meaning they will be looking to progress to the last-16 without the threat of Benfica claiming an away goal of their own.
Despite circumstances regarding European club football being different this season, in terms of matches being staged in neutral venues and neither side having the backing of their own fans, Arteta believes it makes the scenario all the more difficult.
The Spaniard, speaking to the media on Wednesday morning, said: “I think it’s different. The away goal is always important but in this case, in this context I don’t think it’s that relevant.
“We take the game like there is everything still to play for. It’s the second half of the game and we need to go there to try to go to win the game.
“Because any other thing, without the fans, without being in our stadium or anything, I think makes the game very tricky.”
With Arsenal having crashed out of both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup already this season, the Europa League remains the club’s only hope of a trophy this term.
But whilst the Gunners will be desperate to lift a piece of silverware come the end of the campaign, winning the Europa League remains the club’s best hope of gaining a spot in the Champions League for next season, with the club currently 11 points shy of the top four in the Premier League table.
On whether or not he sees the Europa League as Arsenal’s only route back into the Champions League, Arteta added: “I think while mathematically everything is possible, in football you have to try so hard. We’re going to do that in the league for sure.
“It’s true that the Europa League gives you a completely different route and is a competition that we want to carry on playing, and try to win it.
“Tomorrow is another opportunity to make a step forward. The better we are in the Europa League, the better we’re going to be performing in the league and vice-versa. We need to be alive in both competitions.”
As the Gunners aim to progress to the last-16, they have been handed a major boost with the news that Thomas Partey is fit and available for selection. The Ghanaian international has missed the last three matches through a hamstring injury, meaning his stop-start campaign has persisted.
However, Partey has been included in travelling squad after successfully coming through training on Wednesday unscathed. It remains unseen whether or not Arteta will opt to throw the former Atletico Madrid in from the start.
Centre-back Rob Holding has not been so lucky. The defender was forced off against City at the weekend with a head injury and will not be able to feature.
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Issuing an update on the former Bolton Wanderers man, Arteta said: “He’s not available. He had a concussion, we tested him and he’s completely fine but obviously now we need to follow the protocols and he won’t be able to travel.”
Arteta has no other injury or suspension concerns to sweat over.
Full Arsenal squad available to face Benfica:
Goalkeepers: Bernd Leno, Mat Ryan & Karl Hein.
Defenders: Hector Bellerin, Cedric Soares, Gabriel Magalhaes, David Luiz, Pablo Mari, Calum Chambers & Kieran Tierney.
Midfielders: Willian, Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson, Granit Xhaka, Thomas Partey, Dani Ceballos, Mohamed Elneny, Martin Odegaard & Emile Smith Rowe.
Strikers: Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Eddie Nketiah & Gabriel Martinelli.