There is no real sense that Arsenal face their biggest, most pivotal game of the season so far on Thursday evening, but the evidence points to the Europa League last-32 second leg against Benfica being exactly that. Not since last year’s FA Cup final will the Gunners have taken to the pitch with so much on the line.
The lack of tension around the game is reflective of the way Arsenal’s season as a whole has been so apathetically received. Maybe it’s the lack of supporters inside the Emirates Stadium to express their opinion, but it has somehow flown under the radar that the north London side are enduring their worst campaign for 26 years.
Mikel Arteta came under pressure before Christmas as Arsenal suffered a seven-match winless run that saw them perched precariously above the Premier League’s relegation zone for a few weeks, but the Spaniard has largely been afforded a degree of leeway unusual for a manager at a ‘Big Six’ club.
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Until now, the Europa League has acted as a safety net for Arteta and Arsenal. As long as the Gunners are in the competition, they still have a chance of salvation in the form of Champions League qualification. Without that chance, though, the desperation and failure of Arsenal’s 2020/21 season will be thrust into focus.
“It’s a big season and a really important [game] mentally and confidence-wise,” Arteta told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s going to dictate if we’re in another competition or not for a few more weeks. This is really what we need. It’s a really tough opponent. It’s a Champions League team who have been playing in these types of games for many years with a manager with huge experience. For us tomorrow, it’s a final.”
Last week’s first leg suggests Arteta is right to consider Thursday’s second leg a final. Benfica more than held their own against the visitors in a 1-1 draw at the Estadio da Luz and had opportunities to win the game. The Portuguese side will stand a good chance of scoring a valuable away goal at the Emirates. That would be devastating to Arsenal’s hopes of progression.
More than once, Arteta has implored fans and pundits to trust in the process, but at what point must that process start delivering results? The Gunners looked to have turned a corner after the win over Chelsea on Boxing Day, sparking a run that saw them win five of their next six games, but there has been undeniable regression since then.
If Arsenal wake up on Friday morning out of the Europa League, Arteta will only have blind faith to justify his continued employment. The Gunners are currently languishing in the bottom half of the table and have been knocked out of both domestic cup competitions. Continental elimination at this relatively early stage would be another sign that Arteta’s methods aren’t working.
On the flip side, a victory over Benfica could give Arsenal’s season the purpose it needs. On individual talent alone, the Gunners boast one of the strongest squads left in the Europa League so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they could win the competition. Arteta could buy himself more time that way much like Jose Mourinho did by winning the Europa League when Manchester United finished a lowly sixth in the Premier League.
Recent performances, however, don’t point to this being terribly likely. The competition in the Europa League this season is particularly stiff with AC Milan, Ajax, Leicester City, Manchester United and Tottenham all still in the competition. How many of those sides would Arsenal be favoured to overcome?
Arteta is unlikely to lose his job on the outcome of Thursday’s match against Benfica, but defeat could mark the start of an inquest into what exactly the Spaniard has improved at the Emirates Stadium. Without the hope the Europa League offers, Arteta could find it harder to shield himself from scrutiny.
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