The international break is fast approaching. There are two matches between then and now, two crucial matches that could have major implications for the run-in following the final international break of the season. Tow matches, two roads diverging before the Gunners - both could lead to glory and immortality. Winning one or the other would put a fitting touch on the season for Mikel Arteta and the Gunners. But can they manage both?
Before Arsenal host Crystal Palace in the Premier League on Sunday, they welcome Portuguese Premier League club Sporting CP to the Emirates for the second leg of their Europa League tie on Thursday with their sights set at a quarterfinal berth.
Last week’s affair in Lisbon was about what many expected - a little tricky, a little entertaining, but nothing to really write home about. Mikel Arteta rotated heavily, and, despite some shaky play, the Gunners split the points with the hosts in a 2-2 draw. The Gunners probably did enough to win, but the result was ideal in a way, as the tie is still very much in their hands, and, more importantly, nobody picked up any new injuries.
Ahead of this match are two really major talking points that are directly correlated with one another. The first is that whopping elephant in the room that is the Premier League title race. The matches are winding down, and Arsenal are still holding fast to their 5 point lead over title holders Manchester City. 11 matches remain in the league, 10 after this weekend’s match, and with each match week that passes, the reality of Arsenal actually doing the damn thing increases with each positive performance.
The goal entering the season was to secure Champions League for next season. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but that seems all but a foregone conclusion at this juncture, barring a massive nosedive (touching all available wood). The chance to win the league is one that was massively unexpected, but wholly embraced. With this campaign presenting Arsenal’s best chance at lifting the trophy for the first time in 19 years, the prevailing school of thought that says Arsenal should treat the Europa League with less seriousness and keep all of the eggs in the PL basket.
But the other school of thought is the one that takes Arsenal down a more treacherous, but glory-laden, path. Chasing two major pieces of silverware is an endeavor for the truly bold. Arteta, in all of his daring managerial youth, is a man who has shown himself to be exceedingly calculating, but also remarkably trusting of his players. It would be understandable to imagine Arteta setting his sights firmly on the PL with the EL a secondary endeavor. But there is the other side - the passionate, romantic side of Arteta - that remembers the thrill of being on the pitch and fighting tooth and nail alongside your teammate for a shot at the prize.
The second talking point is that, for what feels like the first time in ages, health is finally on Arsenal’s side (once again, touching wood). Outside of Mo Elnenny’s season-ending injury and Eddie Nketiah’s knock, the Gunners are healthy across the board. Even Gabriel Jesus, out since the World Cup, returned against Fulham with a brief cameo where was greeted with a roaring ovation.
Health means depth, which is something that Arsenal have not had the luxury of for major stretches of the season. That they managed to maintain their league-leading form in spite of it all is a huge testament to their mentality and ability. But now Arteta has genuine selection headaches and roster juggling to do. The manager has the luxury of resting starters if he wants, but he also is the sort of manager that never shies away from putting out his best lineup when necessary.
All of this is to say that I believe that Arteta has every intention of pushing for both competitions. There are two months remaining, and a lot can change in that time, but Thursday is a chance to put out a solid side, fight for the win, and put the team in the best position to secure a spot in the next round. This side is too talented and too hungry to settle for less.
For discussions about lineups and score predictions, check out Nathan’s post.
As the old saying goes: Fortune favors the bold. It’s time for Arteta and Arsenal to be bold.
WHAT: Arsenal vs Sporting CP
WHEN: Thursday, March 16th, 4:00pm EST/1:00pm PST/8:00pm BST
WHERE: The Emirates Stadium, London
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming live on the Paramount+ app.
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