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Europa League round of 32, first leg; Thursday 18 February, 14:00; Venue: Stadio Olímpico, Rome

Nearly a year to the day since Arsenal faced Olympiakos in the first, away leg of the Europa League round of 32 in a tie that ended disastrously for the Gunners, Mikel Arteta’s side travel to Italy rather than Portugal to face Benfica in the first leg and same round of this year’s tournament that has been modified by the effects of Covid-19 more than one year into the pandemic.  Two weeks after last year’s home tie with Olympiakos, after Mikel Arteta was diagnosed positive for the virus, European football began to close up shop for a few months as the pandemic raged.  With the pandemic still going on in a different form, it’s odd the way this year’s tournament sets up, but is a unique turn of events to be sure. 

The UK’s stricter Covid-19 travel restrictions announced two weeks ago forced both legs of the tie to be moved to neutral venues.  This first leg was scheduled to be contested in Lisbon but after Portugal found its way onto the UK’s ‘red list’ returning travelers to the UK were required to quarantine for 10 days, which would have prevented Arsenal from playing the home league fixture against Manchester City three days later, the return leg with Benfica on the 25th, and the away fixture at Leicester on the 28th.  But both legs now having been rescheduled, Arsenal’s travel schedule through next week will take them to Rome, London, Piraeus (the home of Olympiakos and, coincidentally, Arsenal’s “home” venue for the return leg) and Leicester, of course. 

Between these two clubs, Benfica and Arsenal have reached five UEFA Cup and Europa League finals but lost them all.  Benfica were runners-up in the 1983 UEFA Cup and the 2013 and 2014 Europa League, while Arsenal were losing finalists in the 2000 UEFA Cup and 2019 Europa League.  These two clubs were paired just one prior time in Europe, when Sven Göran Eriksson’s Benfica bested George Graham’s Gunners in a 1991/92 European Cup second round tie with a 3-1 extra time comeback win in London after a 1-1 first leg draw in Lisbon, so we are hoping to turn over a new leaf this time.

Benfica came through their group stage undefeated with three wins and three draws, but they finished second behind Rangers.  Arsenal finished first in their group, winning all their games and scoring 20 goals, the most ever by an English team in the Europa League group stage.  This last factoid is a bit of an irony considering the domestic difficulty Arsenal have had with scoring goals.  Hopefully the four goals Arsenal scored on Sunday are a harbinger of things to come, especially as Arsenal loaned out Europa League specialist Joe Willock, their joint top marksman in this competition with Nicolas Pépé and Eddie Nketiah who have scored three goals each.

Benfica are the more successful of the two sides historically in European competition, and were Europa League runners-up in 2013 to Chelsea, and in 2014 to Sevilla.  It’s a neutral venue this time, but Benfica have never lost a home leg in the Europa League – a record run of 26 matches including 21 victories.  In the knockout phase their 19 matches have yielded 15 wins and four draws, but I mention this for informational purposes not to strike fear in anyone’s heart.


The opposition

Among Benfica’s familiar faces are Jan Vertonghen who spent eight years with Tottenham before joining Benfica last summer, fellow defensive recruit Nicolás Otamendi who played five seasons at Manchester City, and midfielder Adel Taarabt who spent time at Tottenham, QPR and Fulham.  Benfica midfielder Pizzi is the Europa League’s joint leading scorer this season with six goals, one more than team-mate Darwin Nuñez who has five.  Arsenal will be hoping Benfica’s central defence is a bit weaker than it was last season when it was anchored by Ruben Dias who moved to Manchester City in the off-season and has played a major role in City’s defensive improvement and title challenge.

Covid-19 made it difficult for Benfica to field a starting XI in late January but the crisis seems to have abated since then.  First choice goalkeeper Odysseas was forced out of the team on the 25th by Covid-related issues, but has kept seven clean sheets overall.  Otamendi also missed the game that day due to Covid, as did Vertonghen and midfielder Éverton, who has scored three goals and assisted on five others. As of Sunday evening Benfica sat fourth in the Portuguese league table, 10 points behind leaders and intra-city rivals Sporting CP.  Between the two legs, while Arsenal host Manchester City, Benfica will play an away league fixture in southern Portugal against minnows Farense.

Two Arsenal defenders have interesting ties to current Benfica boss Jorge Jesus.  David Luiz was a Benfica player from 2007 to 2011, when he made 132 appearances and won the Portuguese league once under Jesus who was in the first of his two stints as club manager.  Pablo Marí was also coached by Jesus at Flamengo in 2019 when they won the Brazilian Série A title and the Copa Libertadores.  Jesus’ second stint at Benfica began last August.

Arsenal XI

Seeing as Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé were rested for the entire match on Sunday I presume they will be two of the featured starters in the Gunners’ front line.  The same may be the case for Rob Holding in central defence but as Portuguese nationals, Luiz and Cedric may have some useful knowledge of Benfica’s approach so Arteta could include them in the team as well.  With the exception of Alex Lacazette who was rested, my other predicted starters earned their stripes against Leeds, so not to overlook Martin Ødegaard whose fine contribution at the weekend probably earned him the right to feature at some point, the team may line up with some variation of these players and positional selections:

Leno

Bellerin — Luiz — Gabriel — Cedric

Ceballos — Xhaka

Smith Rowe

Pépé — Lacazette — Aubameyang

The holics’ pound

No matter Rome being a neutral venue, I expect it may still have the feel of a true away leg so Arsenal will do well if they can match Benfica’s goal output, and better still if they can notch an away goal or two.  After last year’s disappointment and the added incentive to use Europa League success to compensate for our still being a mid-table team domestically, I will predict a 1-1 draw in the first leg, with the expectation that such a result will put Arsenal in a position to take full advantage at Piraeus in one week’s time and march on to the next round.  After the excellent debate in the last drinks about whether Arsenal should prioritise the Europa League or the Premier League I thought we didn’t have to only prioritise only one of them, so looking back have to agree with the comments by ‘desi’gooner at #36:

We could take a further nuanced call on this based on the away leg and the home leg. The team has come off an 8 day gap between two games before the Leeds game. The first leg against Benfica is the away leg and I personally think that we should play the same eleven (or maybe maximum one change with Pepe coming in for ESR or Odegaard) and throw the kitchen sink at it for the first 60-65 mins and score 2-3 away goals and shut up shop after that.

I like that thinking and that positivity, especially since the Europa League is our best hope to do something positive with the remainder of our season, so a big performance in the Benfica tie will lift the mood all around the club. 

Come on you Gunners, and enjoy the game all.

69 Drinks to “Tiber Tour to Hike Gunners Hopes in Hellas?”

  1. 1
    Doctor Faustus says:

    Excellent preview bt8!

    Maybe we will see Holding and Mari, or at least one of them? I would also very much want to see Pépé start this game. He has been getting better steadily and always has a goal in him. Saka is our most played outfield player this season and maybe Mikel will start being a little cautious about him and give him some rest, especially given against the tight tactical defensive organizations of most PL teams he is irreplaceable in the team.

    A win will be fantastic and I think we will get one.

    Go Arsenal!

  2. 2
    ksn says:

    Thanks for such a positive preview, Bt8. After the last match expectations have gone up and I hope we win by at least a two goals margin. KT is fit and is likely to play. I feel both ESR and Saka should be rested though Arteta will probably play both of them. Pepe and Odegaard can replace Saka and ESR. Holding can replace Luiz who wouldn’t be able to manage both this and the City game. Will be interesting to see what Arteta does.

  3. 3
    Goonersince54 says:

    Dr F from previous drinks.
    Thnks for the heads up for reason Saliba missed last night’s game.
    Who knew. !!

  4. 4
    Countryman100 says:

    Great preview to wake up to bt8. A shame that this game won’t be in Lisbon, a fabulous city that I visited 18 months ago. Still, I suppose Rome is not a bad substitute. I would like to see the same starting XI as against Dirty Leeds, knocks permitting. That team played some wonderful football in the first half and I would like to see some more of the same. The team Arteta picks will be a good indicator of his mindset as we go into another intense period of games.

  5. 5
    bathgooner says:

    Thanks for an informative and upbeat preview bt8. I didn’t know that Benfica had become the rest cure for rejects from up the road. I certainly like your strategy of trying to secure the tie from the off by throwing the kitchen sink at Benfica for the first hour.

    I agree that Saka should be rested and would pick your team with Pépé on the right as you intended. I would give Ødegaard 30 minutes in the second half for ESR unless an earlier addition of creativity is required and I’d give KT3 a 15 minute run out at the end of the game to get his ‘sea-legs’ back for the Shitteh game.

    I watched both Benfica’s matches against the Blue Ugly Sisters and they are a spirited side who never give up and came back from a two goal deficit in both home and away games to secure a draw. We will have to be careful and have all our wits about us (I’m looking at you Xhaka and Luiz!).

    A win would be very nice, thank you.

  6. 6
    bathgooner says:

    I like your title too, bt8. Extremely Faberesque!

  7. 7
  8. 8
    TTG says:

    Bt8
    Your previews are extraordinarily informative and make excellent reading . For some reason I’m exceptionally bullish about this game ( and this competition actually ) although it does occur to me that the sensible thing would be to play this as a one-off tie like the Europa And Champions League games played in the summer . But that might affect TV revenue even if it’s not socially responsible to have players flitting all over Europe . Home and away means nothing in this context , in fact I think we are travelling further to play at home !
    I think we may play Mat Ryan, Marí may come in and I think we might rest ESR and Saka , bringing in Pepe and Ødegaard and we may also see Martinelli starting if he is deemed sharp enough. Now Auba is in form I think he may start up the middle . In reality this game is a more likely win than Sunday’s match and we need to be pragmatic . 3-0 to the Gunners!

  9. 9
    North Bank Ned says:

    A comprehensive review, bt8. I suspect Auba, ESR and Saka will start on the bench and only come off it if the game needs chasing. Starts for Laca, Pepe, Martinelli and Ødegaard, with the Norweigan coming off early in the second half. That would keep the important legs fresh for City. Agree with bath that KT should get a run-out, but I would give him the last 20-30 mins.

  10. 10
    North Bank Ned says:

    TTG@9: We are third favourite to win the EL this season behind Man U and the neighbours. However, history is not on our side. We have never won a tie in any European competition against another English side.

  11. 11
    Osakamatt says:

    Thanks bt8 for an excellent preview
    though I’ve bad memories of the
    91/92 game. Taarabt bears watching
    but I think we should be too good for
    Benfica if we’ve our wits about us
    and expect a 2-0 or 3-0 tonight.
    COYGS!

  12. 12
    BtM says:

    3-0 for the team in red with Pepe, Martinelli and Odegaard all starting.
    Enjoy.

  13. 13
    TTG says:

    Ned,
    I hadn’t realised that , thanks for the update .
    I remember us losing unluckily to Liverpool, comprehensively to ManUre and heartbreakingly to Chelsea .

  14. 14
    North Bank Ned says:

    That makes two of us, TTG.

  15. 15
    'desi'gner gooner says:

    Very informative and comprehensive preview bt8 and thanks a lot for quoting my post from the last drinks.

    For the starting line up – there’s an interesting symmetry developing within the squad which could enable us to play different styles. Playing against a team like Leeds who man mark and thereby can be manipulated for space with quick dribbles (Saka) and one touch passing(Odegaard, Smith Rowe) – enabling Auba to use that space in a lethal way. Against low block sides, Laca playing centrally – dropping slightly deeper and almost reflecting the ball for the runs in behind from Smith Rowe and Saka would be a good strategy. Pepe’s individuality with his over intricate (sometimes too complicated even for himself) footwork, dribbling and pace is also an asset in the latter scenario against low block/space defending teams. The starting line up we put out may well be governed by the defensive style of Benfica and not necessarily based on squad rotation. The only problem facing Arteta right now is that no matter the opposition style, the two youngsters Saka & Smith Rowe seem undroppable because of their adaptability and their presence being crucial to make us tick as an attacking force. Those two are constants with Laca, Auba, Pepe, Martinelli and Odegaard as the variables.

  16. 16
    Trev says:

    Great preview, bt8 !

    No Saka or Ødegaard in your line-up ? I hope we see one of them although there is no need to flog both.

    Scoring 2 or 3 and then shutting up shop sounds a great plan until you consider how we might do it. If it means bringing on Willian and Elneny to partner Xhaka, at the expense of our energy and creativity, then it’s a big “no” from me. Attack was what was beating Leeds and while our defence has improved, we are not good at dropping deep and seeing games out. To be fair, Xhaka has been better of late but works more positively with a better player ahead of him. Elneny has been adequate mostly but Willian infects the team with a sloppy lethargy that I hope we’ve seen for the last time.

    Scoring draw or any win will obviously be good.

  17. 17
    bathgooner says:

    Nicely summarised TTG @13. I was at the home leg of those three ties and deeply share the feeelings defined by each of those adjectives.

    The positive take that I heard Gordon Strachan express on such a record was, “The longer a record goes on, the closer it comes to its end!”

    It’s time we broke that hoodoo.

  18. 18
    Esso says:

    Arsenal: Leno, Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ceballos, Smith Rowe, Saka, Odegaard, Aubameyang

    Subs: Ryan, Hein, Tierney, Lacazette, Willian, Holding, Pepe, Chambers, Mari, Elneny, Nketiah, Martinelli

  19. 19
    Esso says:

    and Cheers Bt8! (belated soz)

  20. 20
    Esso says:

    Dont get the 2 Bellerins. Off to check.

  21. 21
    Esso says:

    Tis Cedric not Kieran, but he’s on the bench.

  22. 22
    TTG says:

    Cheers Esso
    Hector looks to have a busy night! Do you mean Cedric at LB?

  23. 23
    Esso says:

    I like that team. I’m all in on the Europa League personally. We’ll get fuck all out the PL.

  24. 24
    TTG says:

    Same team as Sunday
    Interesting that Runarsson doesn’t even get on the bench as third keeper

  25. 25
    Uplympian says:

    Thanks bt8 for another fine preview. Another good performance should see us win the “away” leg and put us in good heart for our following fixtures. COYR

  26. 26
    North Bank Ned says:

    TTG: Runarsson is ineligible. He was dropped from the revised EL squad to make room for other non-home grown players such as Ødegaard and Ryan.

    That is about as strong a team as can be put out at the moment. No League Cup type rotation for Arteta in the EL.

  27. 27
    bt8 says:

    Saka and the Norseman certainly do make us a more mobile threat going forward. COYG and the air-conditioned gypsies.

  28. 28
    bt8 says:

    Won’t care about pollution when the Arsenal goals start rolling into the net.

  29. 29
    bt8 says:

    I’ll even don a David Luiz wig if he plants a header in the back of the Benfica net. Bet he would like to do the same. https://www.bbc.com/sport/football/56090440

  30. 30
    Countryman100 says:

    Arteta clearly reading this blog and following the advice of C100 @5. Come on you Gunners!

  31. 31
    Countryman100 says:

    Oops. C100 @4

  32. 32
    Gunnersaurus Stunt Double says:

    I’m absolutely gutted for Pepe.

    He could not have done more to keep his place at the weekend but he got dropped. Then Willian came on when Pepe would have been a much better call. Fair enough if Arteta was saving him for tonight.

    But we have seen what happens when he gets taken out of the team when he is in good form… he returns in fat less good form and has to play his way back. If it happens again it is squarely on the manager’s shoulders. I really like Arteta but I have no idea what he is doing with Pepe.

    Personally I’d rather see a mid twenties £72m signing get game time over 32 year old Willian.

  33. 33
    Gunnersaurus Stunt Double says:

    Excellent stuff bt8.

    2-0 Arsenal.

  34. 34
    Countryman100 says:

    Open goal miss from Auba!

  35. 35
    ksn says:

    Auba misses an open goal. How did he miss from four yards.

  36. 36
    Countryman100 says:

    Xhaka’s next foul will be a yellow card on accumulation. Lucky to get away with that one.

  37. 37
    ksn says:

    We are back to our slow deliberate passing and moving which has allowed Benefica to get back into the game.

  38. 38
    Countryman100 says:

    Offside again.

  39. 39
    ksn says:

    Second time we miss a great chance. Anyway, was offside.

  40. 40
    bt8 says:

    Come on Auba. You are so much better than that.

  41. 41
    Countryman100 says:

    Why are we so crap at offensive set pieces?

  42. 42
    ksn says:

    We almost conceded just on the half time mark. Nil all at half time.

  43. 43
    Countryman100 says:

    Xhaka really poor there. Dani saved him.

  44. 44
    Gunnersaurus Stunt Double says:

    I really like that first half.

    Auba was quiet apart from missing a chance he should have buried comfortably.

    ESR and Ødegaard both excellent. Saka good. No protection as he was kicked about as usual. Dani excellent in midfield. Xhaka also good but had a couple of really dire moments. It is exactly why I’m keen to see the back of him. With him and Luiz in the team we have too much potential to shoot ourselves in the foot.

    Both fullbacks very good. Not much for the CDs and Leno to do but they did it well.

    Now we just need to create some more chances and score some goals.

    Benfica aren’t great. It is almost like they are not the home side… 😅

  45. 45
    Countryman100 says:

    I can’t remember us being offside for many times for ages

  46. 46
    Countryman100 says:

    So now an impossible penalty

  47. 47
    ksn says:

    Saka misses a good chance. We had three good to great chances but didn’t take any.
    ESR concedes a penalty. Benefica takes the lead.

  48. 48
    ksn says:

    Saka scores. The away goal.

  49. 49
    ksn says:

    Off side being checked. 1-1.

  50. 50
    Countryman100 says:

    Clearly onside. Lovely goal. KT3 ready to come on.

  51. 51
    ksn says:

    Auba misses another chance. KT coming on for Cedric.

  52. 52
    Countryman100 says:

    On for Cedric. I would have hooked Hector.

  53. 53
    ksn says:

    Xhaka has to pass back.

  54. 54
    Countryman100 says:

    Time for more subs. Gotta win this game.

  55. 55
    ksn says:

    We left so much space behind us that Benefica almost capitalised.

  56. 56
    ksn says:

    Auba misses a one on one with the goalie again. Auba not in format all.

  57. 57
    Countryman100 says:

    Auba keeps missing chances

  58. 58
    Countryman100 says:

    Now hooked. Off for Gabi. ESR off for Pepe. No problem with those changes.

  59. 59
    ksn says:

    Pepe on for Auba and ESR subbed for Gabi.

  60. 60
    ksn says:

    We should have buried this by now.

  61. 61
    ksn says:

    Saka offside for the tenth time. They have played the offside trap so well. Benefica’s defence well drilled and disciplined.

  62. 62
    ksn says:

    Inevitably, Willian coming on along with Elneny for Ceballos and Odegaard.

  63. 63
    Countryman100 says:

    Very disappointing night. Auba 2/10

  64. 64
    ksn says:

    It ends 1-1. Disappointing but we live to fight another day.

  65. 65
    'desi'gner gooner says:

    We really should have won this game. Auba had a couple of easy chances but he does miss a few easy ones. One just hopes that it doesn’t come back to haunt us in the second leg. The winning goal tonight would have given us good cushion for the second leg. Benfica are a good side technically and well drilled defensively but they did not really threaten our keeper a lot. We will need to be really sharp to win the second leg without tying ourselves in knots.

  66. 66
    North Bank Ned says:

    Inexplicably, we dropped the pace as soon as we had equalised but should have taken a lead into half-time. Auba had a game to forget.

    At least we came out of it level-pegging and with an away goal to take into the home leg in, er, Athens.

  67. 67
    Steve T says:

    A disappointing night of missed opportunities. We dominated the game and only had two shots on target to show for it. Lots of huff and puff, but too many silly errors. How many times were we offside? PEA very much off form. Xhaka, even by his standards was dreadful and as a team, we just looked lacklustre.

    The game should have bern dead and buried, but now we still have a job to do.

    Hopefully we will be a tad more clinical in the home leg, in Greece???

  68. 68
    bathgooner says:

    A disappointing night given our dominance but we only have ourselves to blame, missing at least three clear chances. Some lovely moves but ultimately we didn’t do enough to win it and Auba has had a relapse again. The ‘away’ goal may prove vital.

  69. 69
    Bathgooner says:

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

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