After their loss against Everton, Arsenal’s Europa League semi final against Villarreal has now taken on an even greater significance.
The Gunners now sit ninth in the Premier League, nine points off the Champions League places having played a game more than fourth-placed Chelsea, and eight points adrift of the top six with just five games remaining.
This means that if they are to qualify to play any form of European football next season, winning the Europa League is probably their best bet.
Despite having maintained that his side would keep on going until continental qualification via the league was mathematically impossible, Mikel Arteta conceded for the first time after the defeat to the Toffees, that Thursday night’s match against Unai Emery‘s side was now massive for Arsenal’s season.
“This is becoming very difficult mathematically to achieve that now,” said the Spaniard of his side’s chances of getting into the top four or the top six.
With the game against Villarreal now taking on even more importance for the Gunners’ season, Arteta will have wanted to have all of his squad fully available.
However, he is likely to be without top scorer Alexandre Lacazette, who suffered a hamstring in the 1-1 draw with Fulham last Sunday, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is set to return to training for the first time in a fortnight next week after recovering from malaria.
With both first choice centre forwards potentially out for the trip to Spain on Thursday, Arteta now has a problem to solve when it comes to that position.
The solution he chose to employ in the defeat to Everton was Eddie Nketiah, but after starting his first senior game since January the England under-21 forward looked well off the pace and was substituted off in the 74th minute.
The fact that it was Gabriel Martinelli who replaced Nketiah though may well have given something of an indication of how Arteta plans to set his side up against Villarreal.
In his limited game time this season the Brazilian has tended to be used from the left wing, although the Arsenal boss has hinted that he sees his future as a number nine.
“[Martinelli is a] centre forward but with the squad balance that we have at the moment, to play on those positions on the left we don’t have five players,” Arteta told reporters after a 1-0 win over West Ham United a year ago.
In his 16 minutes on the pitch the 19-year-old showed that he is more than capable of leading the Arsenal line when called upon.
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Martinelli led the press fantastically, pressuring the ball an average of once every two minutes as per fbRef and fashioned perhaps Arsenal’s best opportunity of the night by forcing Jordan Pickford into a fine save after driving a low shot towards the bottom right hand corner of the goal.
Aubameyang may well be available come Thursday night and if he is, it is likely that the Gabon forward will get the nod up front for such a crucial game.
If he has not fully recovered however, Arteta has been shown that in Martinelli he has a played more than capable stepping up in the Gunners time of need.