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Home at last?

Keep that wax in your ears, boys…

Home, what is it that drives us home? What drives us on at home? And when home is away from home, how can we cope? Putatively “at home” for Thursday evening’s tussle with a gritty S.L. Benfica side, we must make our Homerian trek across the sea to Athens’ Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis. Now, if we have to be away (but at home), it seems to be fitting it happens in this time of Covid. Isn’t that how we’re all vacationing right now, in any case? But will we find our hosts evincing xenia, fulfilling their moral obligation by supporting an Arsenal victory? If so, we therefore must fulfill our obligation, and play football with a depth of beauty unseen in Athens since Griechenland FC plied their trade.

We sail on this odyssey along the winds of a slim away-goals advantage, having ridden the tide of our young hero Saka’s second half equalizer. It’s a narrow gap we hope to thread, between the Charybdian whirlpool of Benfica’s defense and the Scyllian monster of our own folly. As a team again we must find our inner Odysseus, and remain tied to the mast to resist that Sirenian temptation to give up a goal; and yet we must retain enough strength to string our bow and score…for the prize is another step forward on our remaining path into Europe next season (which is greater than any other prize for our club, with apologies to Penelope).

Benfica come to “the home of Arsenal” with a full squad, carrying no injuries or suspensions they didn’t bring with them to their home away from home in Rome. BT8’s excellent preview of the game last week is available for who they have and who play where. As we saw in Rome they are a relatively strong defensive side, capable of playing us offside or clearing our forays over the top. However, their lack of offensive production was highlighted by the penalty they scored against us. If we can avoid such errors our defense should be enough to keep them from the Thrinacia of our goal.

With Capitola Rob missing the game due to “the concussion Jon Moss didn’t see”, our options in central defense are less replete; our midfield options might be augmented by the return to the Partey of Thomas, but it would take Tiresias himself to say if the Partey will start before the lineups are announced. Given the rest of our squad is running a bit ragged, or on the ragged edge, I expect our helmsman to crew his galley as follows:

Leno

Bellerin — Luiz — Gabriel — Cedric

Xhaka — Ceballos

Saka — Ødegaard — Pépé

Lacazette

Lacazette is due to start, and after Auba’s tired-looking game against the $heiks this past Monday I think he should watch from the bench as his friend leads the line. ESR is due for a rest, and given the intensity Ødegaard is used to (NOT that presented by the selfsame $heiks) this seems to be a game tailor-made for him to fill the central creative role. I could see Martinelli on the left rather than Pépé; the latter’s nondescript game against the Oilers might force the former to be on the pitch.

The Holics Pound

As we’re doing a “purdie” shuffle off to Athens, and the travel comes on the heels of a game every three or so days in the last couple weeks, I hesitate to think that Phaeacian riches will be our reward, regardless of the scoreline. An old-fashioned 1-0 to the Arsenal will be just fine, and that can be found for 7s; a 3-0 win is on for 14/1, but the good money again might be at 4-0, which would double that return. Put a fiver on the latter and you can buy many a bottle of smooth retsina…

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This afternoon we lost a strangely subdued game against quite possibly the best side in the world on current form.

I wanted to start with that piece of perspective before digging a bit further into what happened and what we might make of it. Indeed, before the game there were many fans who would have been happy to take a single goal loss, so I hope we don’t get too disheartened by the result.

I actually thought it was possible we might nick something today and so to lose by a single goal, especially given the way we conceded it, is frustrating. But not really a surprise.

Before kick-off the team was hard to guess. As it turned out ESR was dropped to the bench and Pépé started on the left. Elneny came in for Ceballos whilst Tierney, Holding and Marí all started in defence.

The biggest incident of the game came only two minutes in. After a bright start City’s excellent Ruben Diaz switched the ball out wide to Mahrez on our left. Perhaps Tierney could have got closer to block the cross but if you get too close to Mahrez he has a tendency to slip past you. As it was, only Sterling and Bernardo Silva were in the middle, with our two centre-backs and Bellerin covering them. I’d be happy for Mahrez to cross that ball 99 times in 100. Today, however, was the hundredth time.

From that point on we have to look at Rob Holding because the defending is just diabolical. He is in a good position. He has a look to see where Sterling is. And then he just lets the little inside forward drift into space behind him and jump unchallenged to score what turns out to be the winner. Holding is a hard-working player who has been quietly efficient this season, so I don’t want to go to town on him but this is just awful, awful defending. If Sterling had outpaced him after getting in behind him then fine, no-one is going to complain that Rob isn’t the quickest player. But this goal is infuriating because week after week we have seen Holding make a series of fantastic headed clearances. He is good in the air and should beat Sterling without even needing to jump. It is a poor mistake and not the first time recently he has failed to mark his man in the box. He must improve because this should be bread and butter to him. (No Jon Moss, go away. I am not giving you any bread and butter.)

Alright, we’ve all seen it. Enough said. We will have to draw a line under it and Rob will have to make sure he is ready when next called upon. It is, however, worth noting that in the 88 minutes that followed City were poor by their own standards yet their centre-backs were excellent and never switched off. That is how you win things.

The rest of the match was a bit strange really. At first, they looked like they might score a hatful. We looked ragged. A lot of tired performers. However, the team in the ridiculous away shirt didn’t convert their superiority into clear chances, let alone goals, and by the half hour mark we had begun to emerge on top in a low quality game. Leno had barely been troubled. Marí was on his way to a solid game defensively, with a few wayward passes thrown in, but he would have expected a tougher test against this attack.

Saka alternated between looking shattered and well up for it. A couple of times his final ball or shot was not quite there. It was similar for Tierney, who got forward into some great positions without making the most of them. He looked increasingly despairing of his chances of getting back into position, still lacking in match fitness. Saka tracked bravely back for the Scot whose legs were not as willing as his heart.

We did not create much although it was good to see us stop the onslaught and play our way back into contention. I am sure the boss was positive of our chances at half-time. City did not put us to the sword and right until the last whistle a single goal in it meant we had something to play for.

Auba had a poor game. He could not hold the ball up. He never has done and he won’t start now. He was on the edge of things and when he did touch the ball he was off the pace. To be fair we didn’t give him much to feed off in the penalty area. Ødegaard was decent in the first half and he occupied a lot of spaces without receiving the ball. I think in a few games time his team-mates will be more used to his movement and will do a better job of finding him. However, the Norwegian faded in the second half and was hooked on 74 minutes for Laca, at the same time as Pepe came off for ESR. Both were sensible subs although they could have been made earlier and ultimately failed to inject the pace that might have got us something from the game. The direct, relentless presence of Gabi Martinelli might have been a good call too, but we will never know.

We need to have a word about Pépé. He was quiet today. No worse than anyone else and he did at least try to shoot but he did not have a big influence on proceedings. Now, from my armchair it looks like Arteta has got this one all wrong. We know Pépé is a confidence player who needs to play himself into form. The Boss has an almost perverse penchant for taking him out of the team when his confidence is highest and holding him back until he has lost all momentum before starting him in a big game. The flipside of his refusal to use Pépé in the last couple of games despite him looking increasingly effective is that now Bukayo Saka is knackered. The gaffer knows a lot more than me but I am struggling to see the sense in this one. I hope those who are not convinced by Pépé spare a thought for whether the manager is handling him in a way to get the best from him. And as for Saka- that boy needs a rest!

Just to mix it up I thought I’d wait until we were into the meat of the piece before talking about our midfield. It is the same issue with The Axis Of Average that it always is. Xhakneny do not move the ball forwards enough. Or quickly enough. And this is still true despite an upturn in Xhaka’s performances which I would be churlish not to mention. He had a decent enough game. But we are not going to beat City with that pair in midfield and perhaps we were lucky that our opponents were not really at the races today. Nothing more to add. They are what they are and we have all seen enough of them to know it.

Now, on to Jon Moss. He is not my favourite chap. Out of all the chaps and chapesses in the world it is indeed safe to say that he is not top of my list. Watching him puff about like a steam train as the electricity powered high-speed shuttles that are professional footballers whizz past him is never fun at the best of times (even Xhaka out-paced him with relative ease). However, it is the games like today, where he incorporates his own brand of low-level incompetence, without making any glaring errors, that just really do my head in. Speaking of which, he did in fact make one egregious error, waving play on when Rob (who had a solid game after the opening twenty minutes) had his head whacked very hard by Cancelo’s knee. Apparently, the importance of stopping play for head injuries is not something Moss has understood so we waited until City had missed a chance after playing through the space our defender would have been in if he hadn’t been lying dazed on the floor before the ref decided he might need treatment.

I’ve written that jokily but on a serious note he should be reprimanded, or more likely taken aside for a quiet word, after that mistake. That Holding failed the concussion test and was subsequently replaced by David Luiz in a concussion substitution does not look good on Mr. Moss. These injuries must be taken seriously. The referees are instructed to do so. And he failed to follow that instruction, delaying treatment to someone with a concussion. Breaks in the game are a pain, especially as some players are now (rather despicably) grabbing their heads to get play stopped despite not being significantly injured. Yet this is an area where we must be safe not sorry, and the rules must be followed.

In his pessimistic and patronising commentary for Sky Gary Neville did make an apt analogy in comparing City to Floyd Mayweather for the way they got ahead and kept us at arm’s length, safe in their superiority. The new buzz-word is ‘game-state’ and I think City might have raised their levels more if they hadn’t scored so early. But with the game state as it was (we used to just say ‘cos they were winning) they let us play in front of them but were fairly comfortable throughout. Another day it might have backfired but we just didn’t have enough juice in the tank.

Overall, look, I can’t get too exercised about this one. How about you? I’ll look forward to hearing from everyone in The Drinks (comments) at the bottom of the page how you all saw it. See you there!

As ever, have a good one ‘holics.

This weekend sees the visit of the high-flying league leaders to The Arsenal, who will, no doubt, want to bring City down to earth with a heavy dose of bumps. We have returned from our Italian job mildly frustrated not to have put the tie away, but on the whole I think confident that we can finish it at our new home in Greece next week. Confidence is something we will need for this game as our visitors have won 12 on the spin and in the process blown away all predictions of a close finish to the PL this season. Can we make it an unlucky 13 for the men from Manchester? Let us hope so for while we should show respect for their footballing prowess and the excellent job done by Pep & Co we can at the same time recognize that Man City are, fundamentally, cash-doped cheats, liars and purveyors of values that would not be out of place in the meanest of Dark Age slums. In my opinion. Enough of them and their iniquity for now as I am more interested in The Arsenal’s fundamentals, if I may put it that way, and from where I am sitting they are looking basically unchanged after the last two games – as goes Auba so go The Arsenal. Let’s hope he has put his scoring boots back on for this one, if he even plays of course, as predicting Mikel’s selection for this game is really quite a challenge. The boss himself has made it difficult with his startling new idea of playing the same XI two games running – whatever next? Three in a row? He wouldn’t would he? A visit from the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Footballers will surely follow. Anyway, for what it’s worth let’s give it a go.

The Arsenal XI

As I write this preview on a Saturday night in Osaka, I have no news on any injuries picked up in the Benfica game and know only that Thomas Partey remains unavailable. We are in the midst of a run of challenging games and our 10th place league position means we need every point we can get – in the circumstances I think Mikel will certainly take a risk or two but also keep an eye to the next few games as well. In the circumstances, the only selection I actually feel sure of is Leno in goal. I believe KT will start and that Hector will get the nod over Cedric at right back. There has been some criticism of Hector’s performance in midweek but I would say that from an attacking point of view he scored against Leeds and would have had an assist against Benfica but for Auba’s profligacy. I believe Rob will return for this one to partner Gabriel as three games in such a short space of time is asking a lot of David Luiz. In midfield I think Mikel will favour the more conservative approach of starting Xhaka and Elneny though Dani has done little wrong in the last two games and it is simply a feeling on my part (and not a good one I suspect many of you may be saying to yourselves). Up front it must surely be time for a break for Saka and ESR and a return for the now well-rested Pepe and Laca. That leaves us with the XI below, which I freely admit may be largely incorrect.

Leno

Bellerin Holding Gabriel Tierney

Elneny Xhaka

Pepe Odegaard Auba

Laca

The Opposition

They have as I said won 12 in a row, beaten us in 9 of our last 10 meetings and were described during the week by Mikel as “the best team in Europe at the moment”. Arguable though that may be, City also have De Bruyne available again and a strength in depth that if not pivotal has certainly been very important to their rise to the top in this most congested of seasons. Additionally, they are stronger defensively this season and are one of only three teams in the PL with a better goals against record than us this season. However, they are like anyone beatable, and we beat them 6 months or so back. We know how they play, we know who their danger men are – De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Sterling (who has done well against us in recent games although, as I may have mentioned before, he deliberately fell on Mustafi’s leg and injured him in the FA Cup Semi-Final. He was sulking at the time as the referee hadn’t fallen for his very best dive just prior) and of late Gundogan, who is on a ridiculous goal-scoring spree. To state the bleeding obvious, we will need to be at our best. 

The Holic Pound

What to do? Actually, this was a trickier assignment than selecting the starting XI. At a loss as to how to proceed I decided to take a radical step and hope you will forgive me for breaking one of The Guvnor’s cardinal rules and introducing religion into the preview. Yesterday, I bravely sacrificed a fine leg of lamb to the Thrice Blessed Dennis in the traditional manner of my forefathers (20 mins per lb at 180 degrees) and sought for inspiration. Dazed by the succulent aroma of Larry, I decided to aid my meditations with a bottle of Gigondas and it was, in the fullness of time, the combination of the two I believe that allowed me to understand that Dennis was telling me to savour the benefits of home cooking because he wanted me to get on a home win for The Arsenal! Not needing to be told to read the runes twice I quickly ascertained that the remarkable odds of 11-2 about a home win for The Arsenal were available. 

I should in the interests of your wallets remind you that we have not won a game after any of my previews this season. Though that is deeply saddening for me, it is not even close to how saddening it was to hear that some morons are racially abusing Willian online. I regret having to finish on such a note but it is important we speak out when the tiny minority of tiny-minded do disgusting things. Go away, we don’t want you.

COYGS! 

In some (not so) distant future some young Arsenal fan — curious about the beginning of the by then wondrous Arteta years and looking to learn more about how the journey started – poring over the results of this surreal 2020-21 season will likely be at a loss to come up with an explanation of why his beloved team had embarked on a tour of the ancient capitals of the Mediterranean to play against the Portuguese stalwarts of Benfica (or S.L.Benfica, or Sport Lisboa e Benfica). Portuguese football’s most decorated team, a major force in the European football in the 1960s, and of course the club graced by the superlative genius of one Eusébio, Benfica has remained a perennial contender for the top honors in Portuguese football with their last Primeira Liga title coming in 2018-19.

Exchanging Tagus in favor of Tiber, Arsenal arranged to play the first leg away match against Benfica — for the round of 32 in 2020-2021 Europa League — not at Estádio da Luz in Lisbon but Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Last time we had played there, a young Arsenal team won 7-6 at penalties (after losing 1-0 at the end of extra time and with an 1-1 aggregate across both legs) against Francisco Totti led Roma in the Champions League of 2008-2009 season. And then there was also of course the memorable Thierry Henry show in November 2002 when the Henry hattrick gave us a 3-1 victory in the Champions league group stages.

Following the last weekend’s assertive 4-2 victory against Leeds in the league, the overall mood going into this match has been mostly optimistic. Much of the discussions in the preceding days had centered around the possible starting line-up. Mikel, already renowned for his inscrutability in press conferences, has also been typically unpredictable in his team selections. Except, of course, always giving Willian some playing minutes – I kid, I kid.

He chose to start the same eleven that played with such fluidity and technical quality last Sunday. Lacazette and Pépé can be forgiven for feeling a little cast aside for missing out on the starting eleven on this occasion despite playing reasonably well in the league matches before the Leeds match. I am sure there is a blueprint for how Mikel and his coaching team want to approach this challenging sequence of four games – Benfica, Manchester City, Benfica, Leicester – in little more than a week and they are following their plan.

In addition to Lacazette, Pépé, Martinelli et al. it was also encouraging to note the return of Kieran Tierney in the bench. Which made Thomas Partey as the only key player missing from the squad at this time.

This is the first time Mikel had started the same eleven in two consecutive matches. And the first time Arsenal had started two consecutive matches with the same eleven since September of 2018, in the early days of Mikel’s fellow Basque Unai Emery. That’s quite an extraordinary statistics by itself and can be explained in many different ways… injuries and inconsistencies being the two main reasons one would suspect.

Leno

Bellerin – Luiz – Gabriel – Cedric

Ceballos – Xhaka

Saka – Ødegaard – ESR

Aubameyang

The team started on the front foot dominating possession and controlling the center of the pitch. Both ESR and Saka started narrow and Ødegaard was given a more free-flowing role, combining deftly with Ceballos and Saka, sometimes dropping further deep to combine with Bellerin to create overloads on the right.

Our very first attack – down the left with Auba spinning forward trying to break the offside trap, unsuccessfully – on the 2nd minute set a pattern for the match: Arsenal trying to quickly break through Benfica’s high defensive line, and Benfica defense admirably sticking to their job and moving back and forward with an organization and clarity that demonstrated how well Jorge Jesus had drilled and prepared his team against the pace of Arsenal forward line on the break. Both Aubameyang and Saka were frustrated time and again by Benfica’s well-orchestrated defense and caught offside. They were also well prepared for the over-the-top long ball from David Luiz and Gabriel, especially with the Helton Leite willing to come quickly outside of his area to clear out the ball. There were a few moments where it was obvious that his courage to play the sweeper role is not sufficiently complemented by the ability to read the situation correctly and this may be an area Arsenal can target in the “home” leg at Athens. Around 18th minute one such clearance was just headed out by Helton right from the feet of ESR.

A minute later Arsenal should have been one-nil up. Bellerin, who had been one of the busiest players on the pitch with constantly running up and down the touch line and running behind the defense on the outside of Saka, was set up by Ødegaard (or was it Ceballos?) as Hector ran on to a through ball and then put in a perfectly weighted ball for our captain to simply tap in past the goalkeeper. Aubameyang had timed his run well but missed the target completely. Captain Auba all throughout his career has always been prone to the occasional bouts of these types of inexplicable misses. His shot conversion rate for Arsenal has been quite extraordinary (thankfully so given the paucity of our creative play and chance creation rates over much of his time at Arsenal) and much better compared to his career record. The timing of the run was perfect and hopefully he would put this miss behind easily for the upcoming matches, even though for the rest of this match it had visibly impacted him. 

Ødegaard was playing with the composure and technical quality reminiscent of the many memorable Arsenal midfielders over the Wenger years. Around 27th minute he was involved in an eye-catching build up play with Saka from which Saka shot straight at the goalkeeper. There was another wonderfully intricate move around 40th minute with Ødegaard again at the center of it.  However he was also guilty of overplaying in that move instead of taking an early shot. A little bit of more incisiveness in his decision making in the final third and he will be a truly wonderful player.

In between around 32nd minute there was a moment of scare when a rare foray by Benfica led to a shot that Leno caught easily but the ball slipped out of his hands and he regained it in the second attempt.

We had also earned a few corners in the first half, with Ødegaard taking on the corner duty. Not much came off any of them.

In addition to the well-drilled defense, Benfica was also not shy of following the examples of various PL clubs in taking turns at bringing Saka down to not let him run with the ball at his feet. Someone called Vertonghen – have you ever heard of him? Must have used to play in some awful club before this lucky upgrade to Benfica – was particularly guilty of it.

Granit Xhaka has lately been more forward thinking and full of verticality in his passing and movement than he had ever been in Arsenal colors. It definitely has helped him to have someone as mobile and intelligent as Emile Smith-Rowe in front of him. But in this match Xhaka relapsed back to one of his stodgy, negative performances with continuously slowing down our attacking play and even missing some simple cross-field pass, even though from a purely defensive perspective he did his job of covering the left side well enough whenever Cedric joined the attack. To me this was a very tired performance and let us hope that before the City match Xhaka rediscovers his recent brightness of form. From one such moment of tired passing just before the half time we almost conceded only for Dani Ceballos to run back and provide a block as Benfica pounced on Xhaka’s loose pass to spring a rare attack.

Benfica started the second half with two substitutions. We came out unchanged but started brightly with Saka taking on a lead role. Once he almost put ESR through and Emile’s shot was well saved by the goalkeeper but the offside flag was raised anyway. A minute or so later we again overloaded on the right and Saka after neatly carving up some space for him to shoot on his favored left foot put the ball wide off the mark. This was turning out to be one of those days.

That feeling of quiet desperation — that we Arsenal supporters have lately become a little too familiar with — started to make its presence felt as a rather unfortunate sequence of events led to us conceding a very soft goal. Arsenal defense didn’t clear their lines when there was a chance and Benfica earned a corner. From the short corner the attempted cross ricocheted off ESR’s right arm as he was jumping while turning and to keep balance had his arm stretched a bit away from his body. It is a true 50-50 decision and the VAR ruled in favor of the Turkish referee’s original penalty decision. Benfica captain Pizzi stepped up and scored. Leno should be disappointed to not save the attempt as he had guessed the direction and the height accurately and the shot was not aimed at the corner. Pizzi matched Eusébio’s record of 7 goals in an any European competition for a Portuguese club.

Benfica 1 (Pizzi 55’) – Arsenal 0

A few minutes later Arsenal equalized. Aubameyang from a central position on the edge of the box passed to Ødegaard who set Cedric up with a perfectly weighted pass through the defense and Cedric’s cross was finished adroitly by Saka.

Benfica 1 (Pizzi 55’) – Arsenal 1 (Saka 57’)

Around 63rd minute Aubameyang had his second glorious chance of the evening when set up by Ødegaard with only goalkeeper to beat. The angle was not the easiest but that is typically a bread-and-butter finish for Auba on his right foot. He shot wide.

Immediately after Tierney replaced Cedric. For the rest of the match he played well enough, but understandably also played well within himself and not attempting one of his bursting runs flying past the defenders. ESR combined well with Tierney on the left, and so did Pépé when he later came on for Aubameyang as a part of double substitution on the 77th minute including Gabriel Martinelli replacing ESR and moving in centrally.

Just before the substitution Aubameyang missed another excellent opportunity when Gabriel – whose long-range passing was noticeable for their positivity and intelligence even though the execution on a few occasions could have been better – delivered a wonderful ball over the entire Benfica midfield and defense for Aubameyang to run onto. Auba controlled the ball well enough but instead of taking a shot on his left foot tried to switch to his right and in the moment a retreating Benfica defender did enough to put him off. On another day Auba could have had a hattrick.

Benfica had a little bit more of possession in the second half and did carve out a couple of presentable opportunities one of which required Leno to make a flying save. Pépé combining well with Kieran went in the penalty box beating the last defender but couldn’t manage to make a final pass or shot. In the closing minutes Elneny replaced Dani – who has had an effective game on both ends of the pitch — and Willian came on for the excellent Ødegaard. The match ended with the 1-1 scoreline that from Arsenal perspective must be very frustrating even though “not the worst result” as Saka pointed out after the match.    

Even though this away goal means that if we simply manage to not concede in our home away from home at Athens we will go through, I don’t think we can or even should try to set up that way in that match next Thursday. We are capable of scoring a goal or two, if not more, and going with a clear intent to win – while staying vigilant at the back – will be the better option. 

As the second half progressed today Saka and ESR I thought were betraying signs of tiredness in their passing and decision making even though their work rate remained exemplary. They are two exciting young players who both have a great future ahead of them, and in coming years can form a formidable creative partnership. Hopefully they will both be used carefully with enough time to recuperate in between so that there are no setbacks.  

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.

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