After last weekend’s capitulation to Liverpool, our Europa League quarter final (first leg) tonight has taken on even greater importance than it had previously.
We have long known that our Premier League campaign was headed nowhere and that the EL was our lifeline for success this season.
But the way we rolled over against ‘Pool without a semblance of fighting spirit or, apparently, any kind of plan, has raised questions (again) about the manager.
So Mikel Arteta needs a good performance tonight to help restore faith in his stewardship of our club as well as to maintain any interest in this season’s prizes. However, the age-old spectre of injury threatens to undermine his – and our – chances.
The draw was deemed to be kind to us, but Slavia Prague are not a pushover. They usually play a man-marking style and have pulled off good results against some big European teams in recent years (drawing with both Barcelona and Inter).
If we had a full squad I’d be feeling pretty confident but we may be missing at least three players who would be automatic starters: Luiz, Tierney and Odegaard. The first two are definitely out and Ode is doubtful because of an ankle injury.
According to the club’s casualty list Smith Rowe and Saka are both available but, given they are both coming back from injury, there must be a question mark over whether they will start. My preference would be to have them in the starting line-up and take them off early if we’re ahead.
Given our generally flaky nature these days (we can go from chumps to champs within the space of a single game) it is vital that we get a solid win tonight, ideally with a clean sheet. We don’t want to be away from home in the second leg without a decent buffer.
If Odegaard is out, the alternatives for the central attacking midfield position are Smith Rowe (my preference), Ceballos (please God no) and Willian (please, please God no). Lacazette could be considered for there (and might actually do quite well) but I don’t recall Arteta having used him that way previously.
I suppose a crazy-but-daring plan would be to pair Xhaka and Elneny at the base of midfield and put Partey in the CAM spot, but I can’t imagine Arteta being that radical.
Elsewhere we had an interesting discussion in yesterday’s post about the best CB pairing in the absence of Luiz, and there’s the conundrum of how we cover for Tierney’s absence: do we put the right-footed Cedric in there or play Saka in a role we know he has looked comfortable in before?
Up front I will be disappointed if Aubameyang and Lacazette are both selected. It should be one or the other down the middle.
Here’s my predicted line-up, working on the basis that Odegaard won’t start. If he is deemed fit enough then he goes straight in to the CAM role, Smith Rowe goes to the left and Willian to the bench.
Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Cedric
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Smith Rowe – Willian
And here’s the team I would send out if I were the boss:
Bellerin – Chambers – Mari – Cedric
Xhaka – Partey
Saka – Smith Rowe – Martinelli