It’s time again to pack away any thoughts or anxieties regarding the Premier League only to replace them with a slightly less perturbing fixture in the Europa League. Arsenal might not be the side they once were but neither are Benfica, but they have enough in their armoury to upset any long-term plans Mikel Arteta might have in terms of this competition.
Benfica are currently fourth in their domestic league with a reasonably stingy defence, having conceded just 17 goals so far and having scored 33, which, for all you number crunchers out there, equates to just over 1.7 goals per game. In short, Arsenal will have to be alert to the obvious dangers of a side that has its priorities in the right order.
Arsenal will know all about Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen, but there are plenty of potential threats if the Gunners leave the door open, so they will have to hold their focus. Arteta will no doubt take this opportunity to rest certain players and the intrigue is in the form of whom he includes.
One imagines that Smith Rowe and Saka may well miss this one and similarly, club captain Aubameyang but Arteta must surely be tempted to give his captain 45 minutes, at least to pillage another few goals while he’s in the mood, having finally found some semblance of form.
Alternatively, the Spanish boss needs to stretch the legs of his limited squad and that might be music to the ears of Elneny, Pepe, Willian, and Mari. Martinelli and Ryan could also be looking at a start, along with new boy Martin Odegaard to bring him up to speed for the PL run-in.
There are question marks over the availability of Tierney and Partey, whose respective seasons have been subjected to an irritating series of stop/starts and I for one would be reluctant to risk either with the clash with a resurgent City ahead, but I guess there’s a need to see if they can make that contest and the only way to do that is to give them a game.
If available, they could get 45 minutes minimum, just to iron out the rough spots but out of the pair, the concern is that Partey is again reinstated too early. His injury problems persist and I’ve no doubt the club risked him in their desperation to find momentum, but the plan failed miserably and I’m concerned that the player may suffer more disruption in a very unusual season for him and the game.
Although this competition is one that Arsenal will want to do well in, it isn’t the priority for the season and I doubt anything will change drastically in the mind or plans of Mikel Arteta. Arsenal need to be compact and defend as a unit to gain the advantage against Benfica, they need to maintain their shape and hit the gas on the counter.
For me, it’s the midfield selection that will determine what approach Arsenal take and how will they succeed against Benfica. Xhaka surely has to feature with Ceballos and Odegaard, which will indicate some attacking and creative intent, but the inclusion of Elneny would signify a more measured and cautious approach.
Arsenal need to be bold and brave but they also need to take any opportunities they fashion because that’s what this phase of the competition is all about. Miss a chance and you are probably out of the Europa League, even over two legs where the initial advantage is all-important.
The Gunners need to show up with the same mentality they showed against Leeds with incisive attacks and a crisp passing game that looked so irresistible during an entertaining and furious first 45. Lacazette or Nketiah is another conundrum for Arteta or will he manage to finally convince Balogun that his agent is a sneak thief trying to line his own pockets and that his future remains at the club he supposedly loves.
If I loved a club as much as Balogun supposedly does, I’d be waving farewell to my agent who doesn’t appear to be reading from the same page, let alone the same book. The very agent that is now jeopardising the futures of several academy prospects by asking outlandish sums for unproven and consistent performances.
If Balogun starts or even makes the bench, we’ll have some indication of where he’s at but don’t hold your breath, it sounds like the decision has already been made and not necessarily by the player. In this day and age, it appears that a football agent can prove more deadly than Covid-19. I expect a tight game in the first half and the Benfica vs Arsenal tie could well be decided in a single goal.
Predicted Side: Ryan; Bellerin, Holding, Luiz/Mari, Cedric; Ceballos, Xhaka/Elneny, Odegaard; Willian, Lacazette, Pepe.
Predicted Score: A nervy 1-0 win with a nerve-jangling last quarter of an hour.