Today, Arsenal play their most important match of the season so far. Winning the Europa League appears to be their best chance of getting into next season’s Champions League, and that starts with the first leg of the knockout round pairing with Benfica. Arsenal, you’ll remember, shockingly went out to Olympiacos at this stage of the Europa League last season. Obviously, Mikel Arteta will want to avoid a repeat of that ignominy. And much will be made over the coming few days about his lineup decisions, what they reveal about his prioritization of the Europa League versus the Premier League, and whether he’s got either right — player selection and picking the competition in which he wants to “go for it.”
The Portuguese side have name-caché both as a club and on the roster. Premier League fans will recognize their centerback duo, Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi, as well as midfielder Adel Taarabt. But the strength of Jorge Jesus’ side is his attacking duo of Darwin Núñez and Everton Soares with the experienced Pizzi behind them. The 21-year old Núñez has caught the eye of clubs around Europe and will likely by plying his trade at a bigger club sooner rather than later. Also contributing to Benfica’s potent attack is left back Alex Grimaldo, who likes to get forward and is tied for second on the team in assists.
Benfica, who usually challenge for their domestic title, are languishing in 4th place in the Primeira Liga, 19 points off the pace. Make of that what you will, but it makes me nervous that they might be especially focused on the Europa League. They’ve only managed two wins from their last five matches, with both wins coming against unimpressive opposition; they’re not in their best form.
I think Arsenal match up quite well with Benfica. The Portuguese side are comfortable in possession and like to knock it around their midfield diamond to try and find space for their creative players to flourish. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal are comfortable defending in the mid- to low-block, and their structure and discipline can stifle time and space when faced with a slower buildup. I like Bukayo Saka and Hector Bellerin matching up against Benfica’s left-side heavy attack, and I’d bet on Saka to handle Alex Grimaldo’s attacking moves quite well.
It’s a shame that Thomas Partey isn’t available for today’s match, because with him in the lineup, I think Arsenal would absolutely smash Benfica on the counter because of his ball-winning and quick progression. Even without him, I think the Gunners will find joy in fast transitions and direct attacks. Benfica’s centerback pairing of Vertonghen and Otamendi, while experienced, lack pace. Their left back likes to bomb forward, and they’re currently forced into using a right-winger, Diogo Goncalves, as a makeshift right back. Add to that the relative lack of defensive cover provided by their preferred diamond midfield, and you’ve got the perfect storm for hitting on the break.
I expect Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s movement and pace to cause problems from the left — he’ll drift that way even if he starts up top. And Bukayo Saka will, surprise surprise, be a menace from the right. Key to Arsenal’s attacking success will be the ability of Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos, who I expect to start at the base of the midfield, to quickly progress the ball up the pitch to one or both of Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe for them to pick out the pacier players in front of them. Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli, whether they start or come off the bench, should also excel today.
As previously mentioned, Benfica will be playing right-winger Diogo Goncalves at right back because of injuries to Andre Almeida and Gilberto. Centerback and club captain Jardel is a long-term absentee for the Portuguese side.
Arsenal will be without Thomas Partey, who did not travel with the team. There was an outside shot he’d be available for today’s match, but he has remained in London doing individual, on-field work. If Arsenal manage a result today, I would not be surprised if he’s held out until at least the Leicester City match on February 28th. Kieran Tierney is with the team and could get the start.
Today’s match, Benfica’s “home” leg, will be played in Rome because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. The “return” leg next week will take place in Athens. I’m super glad that, in their infinite wisdom, UEFA have ***checks notes*** decided to keep the away goals rule in place. As if it wasn’t arbitrary enough already.
Arsenal - Leno, Bellerin, David Luiz, Gabriel, Cedric, Ceballos, Xhaka, Saka, Ødegaard, Smith Rowe, Aubameyang
Benfica - Helton, Vertonghen, Verissimo, Otamendi, Grimaldo, Taarabt, Weigl, Goncalves, Waldschmidt, Darwin, Pizzi
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