It’s that time again as Arsenal head into another important edition of Thursday night football as they host Atletico Madrid in the Europa League 1st leg tonight.
As the fate of Arsene Wenger was confirmed last week, that has possibly taken the importance of this game to a different level.
Before it was announced the Frenchman would leave at the end of the season, the impetus was very much on his future. But since then the focus is very much on the now and how he is sent off at the end of his time with the club.
This is something that I think could turn out in one of two ways for Arsenal in this competition.
Either, as everybody hopes, the timing of the announcement will spur them on to put in that much extra effort to get Wenger a European trophy. Or the players could crumble under the pressure and expectation.
Personally, I believe the players will pull out much-improved performances from now on and we’ll see that tonight.
Especially after seeing that Mesut Ozil was in full training yesterday. Similar to the 1st leg of the quarter-final against CSKA Moscow, I see the German, Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette being the keys to any success Arsenal get over the two legs. (By the way I’m not comparing Atletico and CSKA, I know the Spaniards will be on a whole new level).
Something that may make that success a little easier to envisage was the weekend’s victory over West Ham.
Yes, it wasn’t the best of overall performances but with Ramsey and Lacazette amongst the goals that could give the pair the necessary confidence boost ahead of the tie.
Furthermore, if you want to play the numbers game, both are in great form. Lacazette has bagged six in six since returning from injury and Ramsey has scored eight and assisted twice in his last nine games.
If these guys click and are able to get Arsenal on the scoresheet early I only see this finishing as a home victory.
However, as everyone has grown to know over the years, Diego Simeione’s Atletico are tough nuts to crack. In fact, they’ve kept five clean sheets in their last ten games.
Looking at that stat this just increases the importance of the three players I mentioned earlier and how they need to perform if Arsenal want anything from the game.
Atletico’s defensive structure could help them massively also because the 1st leg is at The Emirates. The possibility of the Spanish side hitting the Gunners with a goal early on and sitting tight to take a clean sheet and away goal back to Spain is very high so the margin for error for Arsenal is close to none.
Also, with a defence as suspect as Arsenal’s has been over the course of the season, errors have become something of a regular occurrence. Even against relegation threatened Southampton.
If it happens that Diego Costa is fit to play for Atletico as well as Antoine Griezmann, that will be a vital aspect of the game.
Public enemy number one when at Chelsea, Costa has proved time and again that he is able to get under the skin of Arsenal players. If he succeeds in that again tonight, then I wouldn’t put it past Atletico dominating proceedings.
On the other hand, Arsenal’s defence proved on two occasions in Costa’s farewell season at Chelsea that they were able to deal with him.
Once in the 3-0 thrashing of Conte’s side at The Emirates where Costa was left in Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi’s back pockets. And in the F.A. Cup final where Rob Holding was able to get under his skin and in turn allow Arsenal to dominate.
Also, Atletico have shown that despite a great defensive record they can be susceptible to leaking goals as they lost 3-0 to Real Sociedad last week. Something the Arsenal players should take encouragement from.
So, for me a top-class performance is paramount tonight if Arsenal have any chance of reaching the final. Let’s just hope everything comes together and big Arsene can get the fairytale ending we’d all like to see.