Arsenal have drawn Benfica in the Europa League Round of 32. The two clubs have met only twice in their history, way back in 1991 when the Portuguese side drew then beat the Gunners in the European Cup. Benfica are currently 2nd in the Primeira Liga, two points adrift of leader Sporting. They’ve got a few faces that will be quite familiar to Arsenal, including former Manchester City centerback Nicolas Otamendi and former Tottenham centerback Jan Vertonghen.
Arsenal were the only team in either European competition to manage a 100% win-rate in the group stage, scoring 15 and conceding only 5, but Benfica will provide stiffer competition. Although how much stiffer is an open question. They were knocked out of the Champions League qualifying stage by PAOK and gave up 9 goals in their Europa League group. They do have a wealth of attacking talent with Everton and Pizzi as well as Haris Seferovic banging in the goals and exciting Uruguayan youngster Darwin Nunez.
You’d like to think that Arsenal will take care of business against Benfica, but with the way the Gunners have been playing, there aren’t any easy games or ones they “should” win. And I don’t need to remind you that Arsenal went out of the competition at this stage last season to Olympiacos after being finalists and semifinalists in the previous two seasons.
Arsenal could have drawn any of the following clubs:
Krasnodar, RB Salzburg, Dinamo Kiev, Olympiacos, Young Boys, Slavia Prague, Benfica, Granada, Real Sociedad, Braga, Lille, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Antwerp, Wolfsberger, or Red Star.
The clubs that joined the Europa League from the Champions League are Ajax, Club Brugge, Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Dynamo Kiev, Krasnodar, Olympiacos, and RB Salzburg. The Gunners were seeded and could not have drawn any of the first four clubs in that grouping.
It feels like the teams remaining in the Europa League are stronger this year than in past seasons, but that may just be because the Gunners are struggling so mightily at the moment.
The Round of 32 will take place February 18th and 25th, the away leg first followed by the return leg at the Emirates. Hopefully Arsenal will have turned things around by then, or else it’s likely to be another early exit from the competition.