Round of 32 of the Europa League brings an exciting clash between two European giants as SL Benfica take on Arsenal in the first leg at Stadio Olimpico on Thursday.

Due to current travel restrictions enforced due to COVID-19, both the teams will have to play their respective home fixtures at neutral stadiums, with Benfica ‘hosting’ Arsenal at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy, while Arsenal will play their ‘home’ game next week at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Greece.

Both teams are unbeaten in the UEFA Europa League this term, with Benfica finishing as runners-up in Group D, while Arsenal won all their group games and topped Group B.

Benfica will look to bounce back after their disappointing 1-1 draw in the league against Moreirense with a win in their opening leg of this Round of 32 clash. They are currently fourth in the league and find themselves 13 points adrift of the current leaders Sporting Lisbon after 19 games.

Meanwhile, Arsenal will be high on confidence after beating Leeds United 4-2 in a thrilling contest. The Gunners are tenth in Premier League and their erratic and inconsistent form this season will make their target of finishing in the top 4 an even bigger challenge.

Thus, winning the Europa League provides Mikel Arteta’s men with the best opportunity of returning to Champions League next season. They will look to avoid a repeat of their last year’s embarrassing exit in the round of 32 of this competition against Olympiakos. Ahead of this enticing match-up on Thursday, let us take a closer look at both teams.

Team News and Tactics

SL Benfica

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Jorge Jesus will find himself in a pickle after losing his right-backs Andre Almeida and Gilberto to injuries. Diogo Goncalves is expected to deputize in their absence. Jesus will also be without long-term absentee Jardel, while Odysseas Vlachodimos and Pizzi are expected to return to the starting eleven.

Vlachodimos will return to take his position between the sticks, with Goncalves slotting in at right-back. Ex-Premier League players Nicolas Otamendi and Jan Vertonghen will be the centre-back duo, while Alex Grimaldo continues his role at left-back.

Adel Taarabt and Julian Weigl will form the midfield pivot with Rafa Silva and Pizzi on the wings, while upfront Haris Seferovic and Darwin Nunez would spearhead the attack.

Jorge Jesus has preferred to play 4-4-2 formation with Seferovic playing the target man and linking up with attackers Nunez, Silva and Pizzi, with Grimaldo and Goncalves providing the width from the wide areas.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Vlachodimos; Goncalves, Otamendi, Vertonghen, Grimaldo; Silva, Weigl, Taarabt, Pizzi; Seferovic, Nunez

Arsenal

Mikel Arteta will be without two key players in Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney. Dani Ceballos and Cedric Soares will continue their role in central midfield and at left-back respectively in their absences.

Bernd Leno should be the goalkeeper for the night ahead of January signing Mat Ryan. Hector Bellerin ought to feature on the right side of the defence, with Rob Holding and Pablo Mari replacing David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhaes in central defence.

Ceballos and Granit Xhaka will retain their spot in the centre of the field. Nicolas Pepe is expected to return to the lineup after his fine showing in the group stages of the competition and his recent performances in the league. He will play on the left side of the attack, while Bukayo Saka on the right. Emile Smith Rowe and Alexandre Lacazette will form the rest of Arsenal’s formidable attack.

Arteta switched from a 3-5-2 formation last season to a more dynamic 4-2-3-1 system this season. However, the transition has been anything but smooth for the gaffer as his team struggled without a creator. Although, ever since the introduction of Smith Rowe into the first-team set-up, there has been more fluidity in Arsenal’s passing, movement and chance creation.

Bukayo Saka and Smith Rowe have shown sensational form this season and will continue to be the most important players in giving Benfica’s defenders a tough time all evening.

Probable Lineup: Leno; Bellerin, Holding, Mari, Cedric; Ceballos, Xhaka; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Lacazette

Key Stats

  • Arsenal have never beaten Benfica in a European competition. (P2 W0 D1 L1)
  • The last time Benfica won a European trophy was back in 1962. Arsenal are still looking for their first.
  • Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe has scored or assisted in all but one Europa league game this season.
  • Pizzi is the joint top scorer in the UEFA Europa League this season with 6 goals.
  • Benfica have reached the finals of the Europa League twice in the last decade, losing both the fixtures.

Player to Watch

Bukayo Saka

At just 19 years, Bukayo Saka is Arsenal’s best player and one of the best teenagers in world football at present. He has been one of the brightest spots in an otherwise dull Arsenal season. With five goals and assists apiece in 28 games in all competition to his name, the 19-year-old will be the most threatening player that Benfica will have to deal with.

Saka’s pace and ability to create chances, coupled with his sharp link-up play with Emile Smith Rowe could prove to be a handful for the Portuguese giants on Thursday night.

Prediction

SL Benfica 0-1 Arsenal

Benfica head into the game having won just two of their last five games in all competitions, drawing their most recent game. Arsenal, on the other hand, ended a three-game winless streak with the thumping win over Leeds United, which will have boosted morale within the camp.

Despite their inconsistent form, Arsenal have the quality to come out on top over Benfica. Furthermore, they have performed admirably in the Europa League this term, winning six in six in the group stages. Thus, we expect Mikel Arteta’s side to take a narrow advantage to the second leg contest in Greece.

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