The Europa League is our last chance of tangible success this season.
An amazing run in the league could get us into the top six or even challenging for a top four spot, but you’d have to be wearing very rose tinted glasses to place much store in that eventuality.
So that means that if we really want something to cheer, we’re going to have to win the Europa League… and that’s a tall task. It’s not that we don’t have the footballing talent to win it, more than there is a hell of a long way to go and any team needs the rub of the green to win a cup competition.
This is the round of 32, remember. With two-legged fixtures all the way except the final that means we’d have to get through 11 more games to lift the cup.
So, with Manchester City waiting for us on Sunday in the league, how should Mikel Arteta approach his team selection for tonight?
The logic would indicate that this competition should take priority, since if we win it we (a) get to drink a lot and celebrate a trophy (b) qualify for next year’s Champions’ League (a huge prize) and (c) get to laugh our socks off at the noisy neighbours (again).
But my suspicion is that El Patron is still wearing the old rose tinted spectacles as far as the league is concerned and will try to have it both ways, by putting out a fairly strong team in Rome but also keeping some key players back for Sunday.
At the time of writing, Tierney is back in training but Partey is still out. Everyone else is available. I can’t see Tierney being rushed back – he’s one of our most important players and has been struggling with niggling injuries ever since arriving in N5.
So what sort of starting line-up does that leave us with? Benfica are no pushover, even if their league form in Portugal has been indifferent since the start of 2021 (five defeats, one draw and only two wins in their last eight) so we certainly won’t be putting out a second-string eleven.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ryan given another outing in goal and Holding’s absence from the starting line-up against Leeds likely indicates a Holding-Mari partnership at centre back. Pepe will surely start, having been relegated to the bench last weekend. We could see Martinelli but I think he’ll be on the bench.
Here’s the team I expect:
Chambers – Holding- Mari – Cedric
Xhaka – Elneny
Pepe – Odegaard – Aubameyang
I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if I was miles out with that guess, but you never know.
If I’m close to being correct, then the starting eleven to face Man City (assuming Partey is still out) would be:
Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Tierney
Xhaka – Ceballos
Saka – Smith Rowe – Pepe
Whatever the personnel, here’s hoping an English club can beat a Portuguese one in an “away” fixture in Italy. What strange times we live in.
Come on You Gunners.