Arsenal faces Atletico Madrid on Thursday in a testy duel at the Emirates Stadium in a bid to reach their first final in Europe since 2006.
The Gunners who have the opportunity to decide their fate, playing the first of a two-legged semi-finals on home turf are conscious of the fact that they may not have another chance to offer departing manager, Arsene Wenger the most worthy of parting gifts.
This should be the driving force as the north London side face one of Europe’s most engaging teams in a match that could easily have passed for a final.
The Spanish club will be the 125th team Arsene Wenger would be facing as Arsenal boss and the tenth Spanish team Arsenal have met in European competitions.
Arsene Wenger’s surprising announcement to step down as Arsenal manager has been greeted with a lot of tribute from coaches, players and football pundits etc, who have eulogised the French tactician for his contribution to the club, English football and European football in general in his 22 years managing the Gunners.
The players have themselves responded positively, winning handsomely against West Ham United in a Premier League on Sunday. The same motivation should drive their performance against the visitors who were champions of the Europa League in 2010 and 2012.
Both teams are meeting for the first time in a major European competition but have once traded tackles in a pre-season tourney where Arsenal defeated the Spanish club 2-1 in the Emirates Cup, 2009.
Atletico’s place for next year’s Champions League has already been secured as they are currently placed second in the La Liga table while Arsenal is sixth in the Premier League.
Arsenal last played in the Europa League in 1997 a run which was made possible by Arsene Wenger who guided the club to 20 consecutive years of Champions League football. The Frenchman’s inability to translate his sustained participation in Europe football’s most lucrative championship, for such a long period, somewhat detracted from his overall rating as one of the true greats in the competition’s ratings. Yet, he just might end his stint at the Emirates on a high should he survive a top Spanish side that has featured twice in the finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2013 and 2014.
Both teams have had a mixed run of results since their Europa Cup quarter-final outings. The Gunners were haunted by a 2-1 loss to Newcastle in their first domestic game after their Russia escapade but responded strongly with a 4-1 trouncing of West Ham last weekend in their first farewell souvenir for Wenger after he announced his retirement.
Diego Simeone’s side returned from their Europa Cup second leg with a 3-0 win against Levante in the Spanish La Liga but was blown away by Real Sociedad in their second game courtesy of a 3-0 walloping. Their recent goalless draw with Real Betis literally handed Barcelona the La Liga title.
Arsenal could exploit this obvious weakness for a bounty at home just as the visitors would be seeking for a chink in their armour for a victory.
The Gunners have been guilty so many times of naïve defending which strikers like Fernando Torres, Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa can easily punish going by their pedigree on the big stage.
Overall, the level of success on the night could, therefore, be decided by the depth of manpower available for both teams for 90 minutes.
Arsenal would be without Mohamed Elneny, Henrikh Mkhitaryan who are already sidelined by injury while the fate of Jack Wilshere, Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac will depend on passing a fitness test. As usual, Aubameyang is ineligible for the game.
Former Chelsea striker, Diego Costa is expected to feature for Atletico having been passed fit to travel with the team to London. Juanfran will be missing the clash while another former Chelsea player, Luis Felipe is still a doubt as he continues to recover from a leg fracture.
WHAT THE COACHES ARE SAYING
ARSENE WENGER: “Is there a perfect goodbye? I don’t know. I just want to do well as I can. I think this group of players deserve something special. I want to do it for them, to achieving something with them. My pride has always been to give my best where I’m employed until the last day”
“The rules in Europe make the weight of an away goal very strong. That’s why when you play the first game at home; you’re a little bit in a difficult psychological situation because you know that you have to score but as well that every goal you concede can be a huge handicap”
“I would say one of their (Atletico Madrid) strengths is that they have no obvious weakness. They are a very efficient team and a team who can use every weak moment of their opponent. Overall I must say that is their main strength”.