Arsenal ‘host’ Benfica in the crucial second leg of the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 fixture at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Greece on Thursday.

Due to COVID restrictions, both legs of the Round of 32 tie between Arsenal and Benfica will be taking place at neutral venues.

The tie is finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg, when Pizzi’s opening goal was equalized within two minutes by Bukayo Saka at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy. With everything to play for, we can expect a mouthwatering game of football in the second leg.

Arsenal will be low on confidence after their 1-0 loss to Premier League leaders Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium. Mikel Arteta’s men failed to create any goalscoring opportunity on the night and will hope they find their shooting boots on Thursday, as the English side’s desire of returning to Champions League football depends on their success in this competition.

A worrying reality for the Gunners is that they have recorded only one win in their last six games in all competitions and with each passing week, reaching the top four of the Premier League looks increasingly unlikely.

Benfica, on the other hand, endured another draw against lowly placed Farense, following the game against the Gunners. It is their third stalemate in as many games in all competitions. Currently fourth in the Primeira Liga table and 15 points adrift of leaders Sporting Lisbon, the Eagles will look for a secure passage to the round of 16 of this European competition with a victory over Arteta’s men on Thursday night.

Ahead of this pivotal encounter, let us take a look at both teams.

Team News and Tactics

Arsenal

Mikel Arteta rested a few key players on Sunday against City, with David Luiz, Gabriel Magalhaes, Dani Ceballos and Emile Smith Rowe all in contention to start against Benfica, for this Thursday’s decider. Arsenal have sorely missed the presence of Thomas Partey in their midfield, and the Ghanaian will have a late fitness test to assess his availability for this game.

Bernd Leno will continue his duties in goal, with Luiz and Gabriel expected to replace Rob Holding and Pablo Mari in central defence. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney will resume their role as full-backs from the previous fixture against City.

Dani Ceballos is likely to replace Mohammed Elneny in the heart of midfield to play alongside Granit Xhaka in the pivot. Emile Smith Rowe will be reinstated in the central attacking role, displacing Martin Odegaard.

In attack, Arsenal’s to be Player of the Season, Bukayo Saka will be the first name on the team sheet, on the right-wing and he will be supported by Ivory Coast forward Nicolas Pepe on the left and captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the centre forward.

Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 system relies heavily on the attacking prowess of full-backs Tierney and Bellerin and the creativity/link-up between Saka and Smith Rowe in attack. Pepe will have a more direct role on the left side of the field, while Aubameyang will look to be more prolific in front of the goal this time around.

Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1):  Leno; Bellerin, Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney; Xhaka, Ceballos; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Aubameyang

Benfica

Jorge Jesus will continue to be without Jardel and Andre Almeida, as the duo is currently sidelined due to injury. Gilberto, who made a return last weekend against Farense, will replace Diogo Goncalves in the starting line-up.

Helton Leite will oust Vlachodimos as the number one between the sticks. Gilberto and Alex Grimaldo will play as full-backs, with ex-Premier League defenders Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi forming the rest of the back four.

Julian Weigl, who was suspended against Farenese, will partner Adel Taarabt in the midfield, with danger man Pizzi featuring as a left-winger and Rafa Silva taking the right-wing position. Luca Waldschmidt joins Darwin Nunez in attack.

Jorge Jesus’ switch to a three-man defence in the opening leg paid great dividends, however, with the onus of scoring being thrust upon Benfica in order to qualify to the next round, the Portuguese tactician could return to a more familiar 4-4-2 formation for this game, with Pizzi playing as a wide playmaker and linking up with Nunez and Waldschmidt in attack.

Probable Lineup (4-4-2): Leite; Gilberto, Otamendi, Vertonghen, Grimaldo; Silva, Weigl, Taarabt, Pizzi; Waldschimdt, Nunez

Key Stats

  • Pizzi is currently the top scorer in the Europa League with 7 goals.
  • Arsenal have scored 21 goals in this competition so far, only Bayer Leverkusen have scored more (24 goals).
  • The Gunners are currently unbeaten in Europe, with Benfica halting their winning run last Thursday. (P7 W6 D1)
  • Prior to this encounter, Arsenal and Benfica faced each other in a European cup competition in 1991 with Benfica winning 4-2 on aggregate.
  • The Premier League side are yet to record their first win over the Portuguese giants. (P3 D2 L1)

Player to Watch

Emile Smith Rowe

Arteta’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 system has led to the rise of Emile Smith Rowe as an emerging playmaker with his burgeoning talent on display every week. The midfielder has become one of the most key players in this setup and his link-up with fellow countryman Bukayo Saka has been a rare positive for the Gunners in an otherwise dull season.

The 20-year-old playmaker has scored 5 and created 6 goals for his team in 21 games. Smith Rowe’s ability to carry the ball from midfield, along with his fine dribbling and close control in the opposition half is something Arsenal had sorely missed at the start of the season.

The inclusion of this young playmaker led to an immediate transformation in the attacking display for the English side. Arteta will put his hopes on the Englishman to deliver the goods against the stubborn Benfica side on Thursday.

Prediction

Arsenal 2-1 Benfica

Arsenal will look to put aside their recent disappointing run and give it their all to reach the next round of this competition. The Gunners created a lot of chances in the first leg, but their inability to finish them could come back to haunt the English side in this fixture.

Benfica have been unbeaten in their last six matches; however, four out of those six games ended in a stalemate. The Eagles struggled to create many goalscoring opportunities against the Gunners in the opening fixture and will need to work the Arsenal defence more this time around.

Mikel Arteta’s men showed great defensive stability in the first leg and were only undone by a lack of concentration shown by Emile Smith Rowe in conceding the penalty. The Hard Tackle predicts a 2-1 victory for the Gunners.

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