Arsenal take their show on the road Thursday night when we’re in the Portuguese capital to face Benfica in the first leg of our UEFA Europa League Round of 32 tie.
The defending Portuguese Primeira Liga champions are having a tough season domestically, currently battling for a top three place and well behind city rivals and league leaders Sporting Club of Portugal.
Jorge Jesus’ side did go unbeaten in Group D of the Europa League earlier this season, though drawing both games versus Steven Gerrard’s Rangers, for whom they finished runners-up to.
Benfica’s 18 goals in six group games seems impressive, scoring at least two goals in each of those games. However, they did concede nine goals in a group that was made up with Standard Liege and Lech Poznan.
Jesus’ side were hit with the loss of Ruben Dias (Manchester City) and Carlos Vinicius (Tottenham Hotspur) in the opening weeks of the season, whilst Ferro moved on loan to Valencia in January too.
They have been particularly poor domestically since the turn of the year, which should give Mikel Arteta great confidence in qualifying from this tie. In fact, if we live up to our tag as third favourites to lift the trophy come May Benfica shouldn’t cause us too many problems.
Our odds of 11/1 seem quite attractive and one would expect those to drop a bit by progressing past Benfica, partly as they’re a big name, and that there will only be only 15 other teams left in the next round.
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Manchester United are the bookmakers’ favourites to go on and win the Europa League this season, and they have been handed a favourable tie in the second round, facing Real Sociedad. Surprisingly, Tottenham Hotspur are the second favourites despite their poor form in the Premier League of late and with Jose Mourinho often rotating his side for this European competition.
AC Milan, Napoli, AS Roma, Leicester City, Bayer 04 Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk are other notable names left in the competition. The most important thing is that we don’t slip up versus Benfica first. Unfortunately, the timing of the tie doesn’t make it easy.
Our first leg in Lisbon this week comes just three days before a home game versus Manchester City in the Premier League. Mikel Arteta against his former side may see the boss rotate our side greatly in Europe. Fortunately, we do have a lot of talented youngsters and a number of attacking players to rotate, making it exciting to watch Arsenal live regardless of what the starting XI is.
The second leg at the Emirates comes four days after and only three days before we then travel to Leicester City in the Premier League. Given that a top four finish is looking very slim, Arteta may have to consider rotating our first team squad for that trip to the King Power Stadium after playing the first team versus Benfica in the second leg.