Arsenal are back in Europa League action when they take on Benfica in the second leg of their Round of 32 clash.
The Gunners go into the game having drawn the first match 1-1. The result was enough to put them ahead in the tie on away goals but they will feel that they should have a bigger lead going into Thursday night’s match after passing up a few big opportunities in Rome.
Although the tie is technically Arsenal’s home leg the game is set to be played in the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens with Portugal still on the UK government’s COVID red list.
With finishing in the Premier League top four now looking very difficult Mikel Arteta admitted this is one of his side’s biggest games of the season as they seek to get back into the Champions League.
“It’s a big game and a really important mentally and confidence-wise,” he told press ahead of the match.
“It’s going to dictate if we’re in another competition or not for a few more weeks. This is really what we need.”
So with that in mind who should he pick for such a big occasion. Here football.london ‘s Arsenal reporters Kaya Kaynak and Chris Wheatley reveal who they’d pick.
It’s a big game and a really important mentally and confidence-wise. It’s going to dictate if we’re in another competition or not for a few more weeks. This is really what we need.
Kaya Kaynak, Arsenal Writer
Mikel Arteta was keen to play it down in his pre-match presser, but it’s difficult to argue against the idea that this is one of the most important games of Arsenal’s season.
With that in mind I expect him to continue with Bernd Leno in goal, despite the fact that this may be harsh on Mat Ryan who is unlikely to play much in Premier League before his loan spell at Brighton ends.
Rob Holding is unavailable for the game after sustaining a concussion against Manchester City so I expect David Luiz and Gabriel to come back in at centre back, with Pablo Mari also dropping out.
Kieran Tierney admitted that he was “knackered” at the end of his return to the starting XI on Sunday, but he will surely have to start again for such a make or break match.
Over on the right this means Cedric could well be in with a shout of ousting Hector Bellerin, and personally I think the Portuguese international deserves the nod based on current form.
In midfield Granit Xhaka will start after delivering a powerful retort to his social media abusers, but it’s alongside him where a big decision has to be made.
Thomas Partey is back in training and if the Ghanaian is fit then he simply has to play. Arsenal cannot afford to go out of this competition, so playing their best team is absolutely vital, particularly after Mohamed Elneny’s underwhelming display against City.
Speaking of underwhelming displays against City Martin Odegaard barely had a kick on the day and I would put him back on the bench to allow Emile Smith Rowe to come central.
Getting as much pace in the side as possible to exploit Benfica’s high line feels like the key to beating them, so I’d go for a front three of Nicolas Pepe on the left, Bukayo Saka on the right and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang down the middle despite his recent poor performances.
Kaynak’s Arsenal XI: Leno; Cedric, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney; Partey, Xhaka; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Aubameyang.
Chris Wheatley, Chief Arsenal Writer
Mikel Arteta will be delighted to have Thomas Partey back in his squad for the match against Benfica, as first revealed by football.london.
The Ghanaian midfielder will be in contention to start alongside Granit Xhaka in the middle of the park and if he’s fit to start there should be no question over the 27-year-old partnering the Swiss midfielder.
Rob Holding’s absence in defence means Gabriel is likely to partner David Luiz at centre back, with Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney set to feature in the full-back positions.
Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are expected to start with the latter in the no.10 role, whilst Nicolas Pepe’s ingenuity in the final third could prove crucial against Benfica’s high line.
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Although he hasn’t fired on all cylinders in recent games, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still remains a huge threat upfront and he should start this one over Alexandre Lacazette.
Wheatley’s Arsenal XI: Leno; Bellerin, Gabriel, Luiz, Tierney; Xhaka, Partey; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Aubameyang.