Match day is here and it is European football again for us this evening, although hopefully not for the last time this season, as we would like safe passage to the quarter finals please, footballing gods.
We take a more commanding lead into this game compared to the same fixture against Olympiakos last season, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we should be feeling nice and relaxed! This is The Arsenal after all and having seen us shoot ourselves in the foot multiple times already in 2021 alone, feeling like this game is sewn up could be the worst thing that we, Mikel, as well as his players, could believe.
This sort of score line is always tough to know how to approach though, if you are the team who has the advantage, I think. It’s easy to say and think you have to keep your game face on and be professional and see out the match, but there will always be an element in a player’s psyche that will know we have this buffer, so the level of intensity may not be the same if we had drawn the first leg 1-1, for example. In that scenario a team knows exactly what they have to do and at least for the first half of the match you see a lot more of that intensity you expect from a knockout competition. Then as the match reaches it’s conclusion the in-game status changes depending on who has the advantage. A team who is 1-0 up and has dominated the match, for example, will not be as forthcoming about their attacking intent in the last 10 minutes of the game and so the overall complexion of the match changes.
That’s what happened last season. We were the better team, had more attempts at goal, yet conceded in 90 minutes and the game went to extra time. We continued to push for the winner and got an equaliser, but after that Olympiakos had a spell as the away goal would put them through. When they got it, it was eventually too late for us, but we still had a chance at the death as they stuck everybody in their own box.
But tonight we have that two goal cushion, so the onus is definitely on Olympiakos to come at us, so I am intrigued as to how they will line up. Unless they have given up in this game they surely have to try and press us higher up the pitch and that will leave room and hopefully space for us to hit them. I didn’t think they were very good at all in the Olympic Stadium and their goal came from a mistake entirely of our own making, so if we can avoid idiocy like that, then we may have a good evening in store, or at least it will make for an interesting game. Olympiakos can’t really afford to low block us, because it will grind the game down to a pointless testimonial pace, but also it isn’t really ideal if you need to get three goals. And Olympiakos do need three goals tonight. A 2-0 victory for them doesn’t actually help them, as the away goals rule would still put us through, so they basically need to attack us from the off. This isn’t like when we needed to win 2-0 at Anfield in 1989; Olympiakos can’t just sit in at 0-0 until halftime, then start to pick off the opponent with two goals in the second half. They are going to need goals to fuel their belief and they will need them quickly.
In terms of team news I suspect we will find ourselves looking at a relatively familiar team sheet tonight, perhaps with only a smattering of change. Perhaps it is an opportunity to give Matt Ryan a start and given he perfromed admirably against Villa on his debut I’d be tempted. But I suspect the back four will look strong; I’m expecting to see Bellerin and Tierney in the side, with potentially Mari and Luiz, or maybe even Holding getting the nod. In midfield I think Arteta keeps that core of Partey and Xhaka and that would make sense to me. That stable base and composure and control on the ball is what we need because we don’t want to be seeing Olympiakos waltz through our midfield. If we haven’t conceded after an hour of football then Arteta can make a few changes to rotate in players given the five subs rule. In front of the midfield duet I think Arteta will stay strong; I think he’ll play Odegaard and I suspect Aubameyang will come back in, but he is surely thinking about Pepe wide right given his recent performances. The only question that remains for me is who plays wide left. Willian? Martinelli? Maybe even Reiss Nelson? He was seen in a lot of the training pictures this week and Arteta has thrown a curve ball in the last couple of weeks by bringing a player out from the cold. That player was Chambers at right back against Burnley, but my hope is that we at least see something of Martinelli today. Even if not from the start, let’s hope he gets 30 minutes to prove to us that he still exists in Arteta’s thinking.
Whatever line up he picks, the mentality in that first half is key. If we shut down Olympiakos and minimize their attacking threat, their confidence will drop and we’ll be able to see out the second half. If we don’t approach the game right however, and allow them too much time and space in our half, we’ve already seen from the Tottenham game how nervous and jittery we get.
Keep calm, keep your heads, be professional, Arsenal. It is what we would all like and need this evening.
Catch you all tomorrow for some post match thoughts.