Given the respective team selections for the first leg of this tie and last Sunday’s Premier League outing at home to Manchester City, there was never any doubt that Mikel Arteta would select his strongest possible side for the return leg against Benfica. Kieran Tierney was the only change from a week ago in Rome.
This makes total sense. While Arteta has already managed to earn a trophy for Arsenal and a promotion for himself (from head coach to first-team manager) during his reign, the Gooners’ manager is acutely aware that winning the Europa League represents his best chance of securing Champions League football for the 2021/22 season.
And Arsenal do have a great chance of becoming Europa League champions — at least according to the bookies. At the time of writing, the UK’s leading casinos offer the following odds:
- 888: Manchester Utd (4.00); Tottenham (4.50); Arsenal (7.50)
- Mr Green: Manchester Utd (7/2); Tottenham (9/2); Arsenal (6/1)
- 32Red: Manchester Utd (7/2); Tottenham (9/2); Arsenal (6/1)
There is some difference between the odds (largely due to how sites represent them) but the prediction is the same. This is that Arsenal are believed to be the third most likely team to win the Europa League, behind only Manchester Utd and Spurs.
These odds do change all the time because they account for form, injuries and a huge range of other factors. For this reason we recommend that you check the best online casinos on a regular basis if you want the latest predictions, as it could be that Arsenal move up or down in the bookies thoughts — just imagine what the odds could look like if Bruno Fernandes and Harry Kane both got injured and Arteta had a full squad at his disposal.
But that’s a while into the future and for now you need to have a feel for how Arsenal are currently performing in the Europa League.
The irony of Arsenal playing their home leg in Olympiacos’ stadium after the events of last season was huge. After being eliminated by the Greek side at the same stage of the competition 12 months ago, and Mikel Arteta contracting Covid – most likely from the Olympiacos president… well, let’s say it's been a year to remember since, mostly for reasons no-one would have wanted, although even if it was behind closed doors, another FA Cup triumph was something to savour.
Let’s go off on a tangent for a paragraph or two here, inspired by Abdul Taarabt’s nasty foul on Gabriel – rightly yellow carded. I’ve decided I’ve had enough of fouls in football.. Fouls are tactical, sure, but they're ugly and breaks up what should be a beautiful spectacle. So here’s a revolutionary idea to stop fouling in these days of VAR.
A 15 minute sin bin for ANY foul. And – using VAR – the same punishment for any simulation. Also any expressions of pain - same thing, whether genuine or faked. I am fed up of all the theatrics. If you are really hurt enough to express pain, you will welcome the chance of a 15 minute break knowing the opposition are going to be a man down too.
Also, a second foul (or any other sin bin offence) by the same player would be a red card. You think the game will constantly be stopping? No – because players would stop fouling and simulating, unless the foul was required to stop an attack so dangerous it is worth the handicap.
Remember the Russia World Cup – penalties given for holding players at corners? Defenders stopped it pretty damn quick and actually tried to win the ball. For about a week it was like a revolution.
Someone email this to Arsene Wenger at FIFA – Arsene now, I am led to believe being the main man in overseeing rule changes to the sport. Still, back to Athens and in the 21st minute a glorious opening Gunners’ goal as Saka fed Aubameyang to dink the keeper and make it 2-1 on aggregate.
This was more like it, and the type of quality finishing that abandoned the Arsenal skipper in the first leg. A very well-timed run to beat the offside trap too – and not the last he would make. Saka’s vision, understanding of the ball required and weight of pass was something to behold.
The ‘home’ team were on top and dominated possession, although failed to turn looking comfortable into establishing a comfortable lead.
And of course, they haven’t forgotten how to shoot themselves in the foot. Dani Ceballos played a significant role in both the Greek side’s goals, which turned the tie heavily in their favour, requiring Arsenal to score twice.
The one just before half-time was the lesser of two evils, Ceballos conceding a foul just outside his own area. He wasn’t tight enough to his man and it exposed his defensive limitations as a midfielder. His team were punished with an unstoppable free kick into Leno’s top corner.
Another Aubameyang goal was chalked off thanks to VAR early in the second half, but after last week’s series of misses in the first leg, it was simply a relief to see him hitting the back of the net.
There was nothing wrong with the next goal though – unfortunately, as it was a second for Benfica, again it was down to a mistake by Ceballos, but this one so much worse than that of the first.
A poor back header towards Leno was seized upon by Silva. Leno did well to avoid contact outside his area and get sent off, opting to allow his opponent to go past him and score.
Half an hour proved just enough time for Arteta’s team to salvage things with the two required goals. Willian was on the pitch (along with Partey) by this time and fed Tierney who maneuvered himself into position to strike a sweet finish and level the scores on the night.
In the 78th minute, Arteta threw the kitchen sink at the game by replacing Bellerin with Lacazette. Needs must – and although Saka was nominally the right back by this time, he popped up in the dying minutes to plant a beautiful cross onto the head of Aubameyang to score the vital goal that kept Arsenal’s European campaign alive.
For once, individual errors did not cost Arsenal the result, and Ceballos will be highly relieved that his colleagues dug him out of a large hole.
However, given the dominance of the first leg, given the quality of the opposition, they should not have been minutes from elimination in this tie.
The draw gives them the chance to right the wrongs of last season against Olympiacos in the last 16 – I wonder if the Gunners will use the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium for the home leg for the next round? They will certainly be playing there again at least once.
It felt good to see that last goal go in – Europe feels very important with the very patchy Premier League season up to this point. Imagine if that had been at the Emirates in front of a full house.
The place would have erupted. It will be nice to return to those days again. Psychologically as much as anything it was key – and there feels like team spirit is stronger than it has been for a while. Imagine the deflation for what’s left of the season if they had not been in today’s draw.
We wait to see who Arteta picks on Sunday at Leicester – there will be some tired legs amongst the squad. I’ll finish with a text received from Doktor Schneide – “The new Arsenal variant is just as much of a worrying strain as the old one.”
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