Arsenal face Villarreal in the second leg of their Europa League semi-final on Thursday night, and it’s a case of progression or bust for the Gunners’ season.
Mikel Arteta is under increasing pressure given the club’s disappointing league position, but this competition provides him with an opportunity to salvage the campaign. If the north Londoners are to go all the way, they’d qualify for next season’s Champions League.
It really is ‘win or bust’ when it comes to the Europa League for Arsenal and Arteta. Having lost the first leg 2-1 they have plenty to do in the return fixture at the Emirates Stadium. Goals from Manu Trigueros and Raul Albiol saw Unai Emery’s side go 2-0 up inside half an hour, but a second-half penalty from Nicolas Pepe has handed the Gunners a lifeline.
Here’s the lineup Arteta should select going into this season-defining fixture.
Bernd Leno (GK) – The Arsenal number one was rested at the weekend. Maty Ryan came in and kept a clean sheet at Newcastle, but having kept the Gunners in the tie when he denied Villarreal a third in the second half with a fine save, Leno must return.
Hector Bellerin (RB) – The Spaniard divides opinion among the Arsenal fanbase and has found himself struggling for a start of late, but he was good at St. James’ Park and remains a better option at right-back than Calum Chambers.
Rob Holding (CB) – David Luiz would have likely started on Thursday had he come through the weekend’s game. However, the Brazilian was forced off with a muscular injury and so Holding’s place is safe.
Pablo Mari (CB) – Along with Holding, the Spaniard didn’t cover himself in glory during the first leg but he and the Englishman have a much better understanding than either does with Gabriel.
Cedric Soares (LB) – Granit Xhaka has been tasked with filling in at left-back in recent weeks but the experiment isn’t working. Cedric is a full-back by trade, and although he will be playing on his wrong side he’ll face Samuel Chukwueze, a left-footed player who will naturally cut inside anyway.
Granit Xhaka (CM) – There is no doubt Arsenal miss him in midfield when he is deployed elsewhere. Dani Ceballos’ suspension should force Arteta into moving him back into his natural position.
Thomas Partey (CM) – The Ghanaian has much more freedom when he is partnered with Xhaka. It means he can play the box-to-box role that he prefers and therefore we see something closer to Partey’s best.
Emile Smith Rowe (AM) – The 20-year-old thrives in the number ten position, and with Martin Odegaard not looking as sharp in recent games the Arsenal academy product should start.
Nicolas Pepe (RW) – His form has been much improved in recent months and he has proven himself to be a more potent goal threat than Bukayo Saka, who is going through a dip in form.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (ST) – Arsenal’s talisman returned to the starting eleven at the weekend and netted the team’s second. With Alexandre Lacazette unlikely to be available, Mikel Arteta will be relying on his captain to produce the goods.
Gabriel Martinelli (LW) – Every time he’s selected, he performs – it’s as simple as that. He sets the tone for the press and is deserving of a start on Thursday night.