Thursday, 26 April 2018

Arsenal v Atletico Madrid Preview

It’s been nine years since Arsenal played in a European semi final and while the Europa League is European football’s second class trophy it’s still one we badly want to win. Not only is it our only way into next season’s Champions League, but it’s also our only chance of a trophy this season. With Arsene Wenger due to leave at the end of the season it would be a fitting farewell present for him for the players to present him with his first European trophy.

If we’re going to make that final we’re going to have to overcome Atletico Madrid over two legs in the semi final and it’s going to be by far our toughest task so far this season in the competition. The group stages were relatively easy as we topped our group with teams made up mainly of young players, reserves and fringe players. As we progressed through the knockout rounds we gradually strengthened the team and now we’ve reached the stage where our season depends on the Europa League.

The manager has to play his strongest available team tonight and I imagine we will see Mesut Ozil return to the team as long as he has recovered from his “illness”. Unfortunately we will be without the injured Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mohamed Elneny, but at least Jack Wilshere should be back after his latest injury. The first big question could be who plays in goal if Petr Cech is fit to return as David Ospina has been the cup goalkeeper this season.

I would normally plump for Cech, but I’m not sure his form merits his inclusion and I don’t think the choice of keeper is crucial tonight. That’s not to say it’s not important, but with Cech probably well past his best and Ospina not particularly good to start with it doesn’t really matter who plays tonight. What is important in the long term is the acquisition of a top class keeper.

I would imagine the defence will be the same as it was in the 4-1 against West Ham on Sunday despite the form of Shkodran Mustafi. If we switch to three central defenders it might afford him more cover, but it could leave us short elsewhere on the pitch. As bad as he has been recently I would be very surprised if the manager dropped Mustafi and we just have to hope he can cut out the costly mistakes.

With Antonio Griezmann and Diego Costa up front for Atletico our defenders could be in for a rough ride. Griezmann is a top class striker in excellent form at the moment and we have had our runs in with Costa during his time at Chelsea. Let’s hope our defenders can be the ones winding him up tonight and he doesn’t get away with his usual foul play and cheating. If the officials behind the goals do their jobs correctly I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the end of a tough time from the referee tonight.

I thought Elneny would have kept Wilshere out of the team tonight, but his injury on Sunday should see Wilshere in from the start with Ainsley Maitland-Niles unlikely to get the nod. It’s a midfield trio with very few defensive instincts between them, but we have to hope they can knuckle down knowing the prize on offer. We cannot allow our defence to be exposed and they have to make sure at least one of them sits at all times.

I’ve been really excited when both Ozil and Mkhitaryan have started together and I think they could have opened Atletico up between them and created plenty of chances for Alexandre Lacazette. With Mkhitaryan out it looks like Danny Welbeck will get the nod instead and to be fair to him he has been in good goalscoring form since his return from injury. He doesn’t have the creativity Mkhitaryan possesses, but he will work very hard for the team and he’s got an eye for goal at the moment.

It’s going to be hard to break down an Atletico team who seem to defend for fun and we might well have to bide our time. There’s no point in going all gung ho and leaving them too much space to create havoc in our defence. As bad as our away form has been in the league it has been very good in the Europa League. As long as we can go to Madrid next week still in the tie there will be hope and the chance for the players to come good.

The last time we played in a European semi final we lost the first leg 1-0 at United thanks to some heroics by Wojciech Szczesny, but the second leg went desperately wrong. Before we knew what hit us we were 3-0 down anf we went on to lose 3-1 on the night. For some that is the point where they decided we needed a new man in charge of the team. Maybe it just might be a fitting end for Arsene if he could gain some redemption in Europe before he finally departs at the end of this season.

That’s it for this week.

See you next week.

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