Benfica was the biggest game of Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s season. Olympiacos was the biggest game of Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s season. Now Slavia Prague is the biggest game of Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s season.
If you hadn’t noticed, the Europa League is quite important for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s season. Despite a broadly positive spell of form since Christmas, Arsenal’s league season cannot be viewed as anything other than sub-standard. They are in the strange position of being more likely to qualify for the Champions League than the Europa League, but to stand a chance of achieving that lofty ambition they must progress beyond a competitive Slavia side who pinched an away goal at the Emirates.
The first leg last week was a bizarrely plodding affair. Slavia coach Jindřich Trpišovský bemoaned the fact his team did not press as high or effectively as they usually do, while Arsenal were generally poor but wasted three or four big chances which could have put the tie to bed. Arteta was criticised for not picking Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli, and waiting until the 77th minute to introduce Aubameyang and Pepe, who scored a very good goal. Both teams will want to show a different face this evening.
The one thing Arsenal have is clarity. They need to score at least one goal and aim to win the game (though any score draw above 1-1 would also do the job). There is little to be gained by keeping things tight.
Arteta’s hand will also be forced by the probable absences of Aubameyang and Martin Odegaard. It means Alexandre Lacazette will lead the line, and it is vital Arteta balances the attack with complementary players around Lacazette. He is a good combination player around the box, but needs forwards who can run beyond when he comes short. The balance looked wrong in the first leg against Slavia with Willian, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka behind him but looked far better at Sheffield United when Pepe and Martinelli provided some cutting edge from the flanks. Arteta must also decide whether to revert to back-up full-back Cedric on the left of his defence or continue with Granit Xhaka there in a hybrid deep midfielder/left centre-back role. Remember, he will have five substitutions up his sleeve thanks to Uefa rules.
Full team news on the way shortly.