This is it folks. Crunch time. Game day. But not just any game day. We are here at season-defining game day. Again.
Only today will be harder than any of the other season-defining game days we’ve had so far. For one thing the opposition are better than any other we’ve faced in the Europa League. Villareal have a wealth of talent and whilst they have had a slightly indifferent season in the shape of a current seventh place standing in the league, they are still doing better in their domestic season than we are. They’ve also won 11 of 12 Europa League games and this is a familiar tale with the man who they have in charge, because he absolutely bossed the Europa League until the final when we was at Arsenal.
Yep, it’s Unai Emery returning to face us over two legs and if you believe the footballing gods are fickle and calculating, you always knew this was going to happen at some stage. Unai to return to haunt the club who booted him out less than two years ago. Unai the serial Europa League winner who has won this competition plenty, took us to a final, only for us to bottle it. Unai the man who studies his opposition so much that he will have already have watched us plenty over the last week, probably few months, so will know exactly what he wants his players to do tonight.
And in that respect you can’t say Villareal don’t have an advantage. Their manager knows all of our players, Gabriel and Thomas Partey aside. He has worked with all of these Arsenal players and will know their strengths and weaknesses. He will be telling each of the Villareal players how to best their opponents tonight and I would be a liar if I didn’t admit to you right now that I didn’t fear what Unai and his team could do to us tonight. And in the return leg at The Emirates too, for that matter.
There is so much narrative at play here it’s blowing my mind. Even for the likes of players like Coquelin who might start tonight, or Capoue who we know well enough from his Spurs or Watford days. It’s like the footballing gods are sending us a list of signs so blatant that it feels inevitable what might happen over the two legs. Heck, they even have that Spurs lad Foyth who was pretty average for them, playing in at right back. So you know he’s another one who is boudn to have the game of his life tonight, right? Or how about Albert Moreno, so clearly not to the required standard at Liverpool, but sure to be an absolute beast against us tonight.
But perhaps that is my over-reactive mind going into overdrive. Perhaps Arteta has a master plan to deal with the threat posed by the likes of the impressive Paco Alcacer, the 20-goal scoring Gerard Moreno, or the rapid Chukwueze, who scored against Barcelona at the weekend in their 2-1 defeat at home. Perhaps we have an ace up our sleeves somewhere?
I certainly hope so. At least we were given the boost from Arteta yesterday when he told the assembled press that a quartet of players have returned to full fitness from the weekend game against Everton. I don’t think any of us expect Kieran Tierney to even be mentioned as ‘in contention’ and so when that came I’m sure there were plenty of us who’s hearts skipped a beat. But I think it would be a tall ask for us to expect him to start tonight. His last game was just under a month ago and so to regain match fitness it might take him a while. Plus we don’t want to risk him when we could be giving him just some token minutes tonight, game time at the weekend against Newcastle, then having him ready for the home leg. So I suspect he won’t start. Which gives Arteta a decision to make because Villareal will absolutely target Granit Xhaka if he plays left back. Chukwueze will surely be detailed to run at Xhaka – or whoever plays left back – and we have to be able to deal with that all evening. I just hope that we have plans in place for Arsenal players to support Xhaka in his defensive duties.
If Xhaka is in at left back then I suspect that means Ceballos and Partey in midfield and my hope is that Ceballos has a bit of shop windowing in mind with his return to Spain surely imminent in the summer. IF we see the kind of performance from Ceballos that we saw in Project Restart and in the run up to the FA Cup final then I’d be perfectly fine with that. But he will need to fill in blanks and spaces where Xhaka’s lack of mobility can’t get him to.
Then in the attacking end of the pitch I think we simply have to go Smith-Rowe, Odegaard and Saka. It would be harsh on Pepe who I think has played well in the last few months, but that trio have looked good when together and I have in my minds eye the game against the Tiny Totts at home as a blueprint that I’d love to see repeated tonight. That game was reliant on Tierney and Smith-Rowe combining though, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see that Pepe gets the nod.
Then we come to the attack, which I think will entirely boil down to who is fittest. If both have equal levels of fitness I can’t look beyond the goal scoring threat of Aubameyang. But if he still isn’t quite 100% as a result of the malaria, then Lacazette surrounded by pace is fine with me. Certainly compared to the other option which might have been Nketiah, who I thought wasn’t that great last Friday.
Fatigure won’t be a thing for this Arsenal team. We’ve had nearly a week to prepare for it. So What I am hoping for is a clear focus and determination from these players. Above all though, don’t leave us with too much to do in the second leg. We’ve seen that plenty of times down the year’s with the likes of Milan, or Bayern, all getting leads against us that ultimately we had no chance of overcoming. But today we need to get a goal. The worst kind of defeat – one I fear more than anything – is a 2-0 or worse scoreline. If that happens then it is a mountain to climb, which would be a mountain that I fear this team couldn’t overcome, so an away goal is essential this evening.
Cross everything folks. This is going to be a squeaky bum kind of game.
Catch you all tomorrow.