vIt’s time for Arsenal to answer the bell. To step up to the plate. To put up or shut up. To show us what they’re made of. The chips are down. [insert other sports cliche here].
Today’s match between Arsenal and Benfica in the Europa League Round of 32 is, hands down, the Gunners’ biggest game of the season so far. Given the Premier League table, winning the Europa League is easily the club’s best shot at getting into the Champions League next season. It may be their best shot of getting into European competition period. So to go out at this stage (again, mind you) would be a massive disappointment.
There’s some poetic irony that Arsenal face the prospect of getting dumped out of the Europa League at Olympiacos’ home stadium. In case you’d forgotten (but really how could you), Arsenal were knocked out at this stage last season by the Greek club. Let’s hope the “home” leg of this tie with Benfica played in Athens goes better than the home leg in London last February. What a strange season.
The good news for Arsenal is that Benfica, not Olympiacos, will be lining up across the pitch today. Yes, I’m knocking on every available piece of wood as I write this.
The Portuguese side were poor in last week’s 1-1 draw in Rome and are a side low on confidence. They’re not scoring many goals, and they’re not winning many matches. Their manager is under fire in the media and is ranting and raving in his press conferences.
As Arsenal fans, we’ve been hurt too many times. I’m sure that I’m not alone in thinking, “Opponents out of form? Time for them to put in their best performance of the season against the Gunners.” I doubt it’s a syndrome exclusive to Arsenal fans — human beings are literally wired to remember the bad more than the good as a self-preservation tool. But when was the last time you thought, “yeah, they’re going to take care of business today” heading into a match?
Arsenal will be without Rob Holding, who suffered a concussion against Manchester City. Thomas Partey makes the bench.
Benfica will be without club captain and centerback Jardel, right back Gilberto, and fullback Andre Almeida.
Arsenal will advance with a goalless draw or a win. A 1-1 draw would put the game into thirty minutes of extra time, in which the away goals rule would still apply. If it’s level after that, we’d get penalties. Any other result knocks the Gunners out.
Arsenal - Leno, Bellerin, David Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney, Ceballos, Xhaka, Saka, Ødegaard, Smith Rowe, Aubameyang
Benfica - Helton, Vertonghen, Otamendi, Verissimo, Grimaldo, Weigl, Taarabt, Goncalves, Rafa, Seferovic, Pizzi
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