The usual five talking points ahead tonight’s Europa League group game away in Liege.
Arsenal have played away to Standard Liege twice before. A 3-2 victory in the 2009-10 Champions League group stage saw the Gunners come back from two goals down with strikes from Bendtner, Vermaelen and Eduardo. However, more memorable was a 1993 second leg 7-0 thrashing in the run to winning the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup. Eddie McGoldrick was on the scoresheet alongside Alan Smith, Ian Selley, Tony Adams, Kevin Campbell (twice) and Paul Merson. Happy days. In five matches with the Belgian side, Arsenal have come out on top every time, most recently the 4-0 tonking at the Emirates earlier this season.
First, second or third in the group?
For Arsenal to fail to qualify for the round of 32, Eintracht Frankfurt will need to beat Vitoria at home (likely) and Standard will need to beat the Gunners by five clear goals (not so likely). Let’s assume that doesn't happen. But if Eintracht win, Arsenal will need to beat Liege to top the group. How does the seeding look if Freddie Ljungberg’s team do not succeed this evening? As it stands, based on the dropouts from the Champions League and the confirmed group winners, at present failure to win the group could mean a tie against one of the following… Ajax, Benfica, Celtic, Espanyol, Inter, Salzburg and Sevilla. The other nine seeded teams will be determined by tonight’s games, but amongst others, Sporting Lisbon, Rangers, Porto, Wolfsberg, Borussia Moncheongladbach, Roma And Braga all have a chance. Whatever happens, there will be some good unseeded teams, so luck of the draw could be a factor come February when these ties come around.
Given the extreme unlikelihood of a heavy defeat, the interim head coach has to decide whether to encourage momentum by playing some of the players who featured in last Monday night’s win, or resting them ahead of Manchester City’s visit on Sunday. It’s likely to be a bit of a mix, and certainly in some positions, options are limited. So AMN and Kolasinac the likely full backs, although David Luiz and will probably get a run out in the centre of the defence, with one of Chambers or Sokratis. In front of them though, I heavily suspect that…
Freddie gives youth its head
It’s a perfect opportunity for Ljungberg to give some game time to the players he was working with at under 23 level last season, and indeed, Unai Emery has already done that in this competition, so it’s a no brainer. Expect to see the likes of Willock, Smith Rowe and Saka come in, alongside Reiss Nelson. I suspect Martinelli will be rested, with Alex Lacazette and Matteo Guendouzi making up the eleven. It would be nice to see Guendouzi and Willock take turns at going forward, just to get in the habit of one of them protecting the centre backs. Hopeully Freddie has been working on this in the training sessions. Because whoever plays on Sunday, someone is going to have to try and stop City having a clear run at the defence (although granted, if that’s Granit Xhaka, we might as well just give them the points).
Granted, it’s a different competition, and will be a largely different starting eleven, but the feelgood mood after Monday’s much needed win was evident and if Arsenal are to turn their season around, the more of that they experience, the better. Winning (or at the minimum not losing) can become a habit with the right mindset, and it’s fair to say that confidence looked very shaky in the first hour at the London Stadium. Reminding themselves of what they are capable of going forward will hopefully see more aggressive, pacier performances in the games to come, without being reckless. A win tonight might not be critical in terms of the Europa League (although winning the group would be a handy), but for the mood in the camp ahead of some tough fixtures to come, it’s significant.
However bad Arsenal have been in recent weeks, Standard will not expect to beat them by five. Doubtless they will start by trying to get a lead and then see where it takes them, but a couple of away goals should kill the evening entirely for the hosts and if they can counter attack at speed, it should be perfectly possible. In a sense, tactically, this might be a blueprint for Sunday. Against City, Ljungberg will surely tell his players not to over-commit and hit them fast on the break. Let’s hope that, after a series of disappointing results, Arsenal can at least string two wins together. It should be possible, given a shadow team beat the Belgians 4-0 back in October. Remember also that this one is an early kick off – 5.55 in the UK.
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