After watching the incredible Champions League football on display the last 2 days, some Arsenal supporters may be feeling a bit left out. However, the fact they aren’t in the most prestigious competition on the continent does not minimise how important Thursday’s first leg match of the Europa League quarterfinals against CSKA Moscow is for this club. The Gunners are virtually out of the running for a top 4 place in the Premier League, and winning this competition is the only route left for them to return to the Champions League next season. Not only that, a Europa League victory would give Arsenal and their newly renovated back room staff more breathing room in the wage bill to make signings this summer and beyond, which is of tremendous importance to a team expected to receive a heavy makeover during the next couple transfer windows.
All of this should be down the road and not yet on the minds of the players, however, who will need to bring their maximum focus with them to the Emirates today if they want to have a positive start against CSKA. Whether it is the unfamiliarity of the team’s and playing styles or the intense atmosphere on European nights, Russian teams tend to punch above their weight in the competition. On paper, the Gunners should play CSKA right off the pitch, but Arsene Wenger knows that he will need to have his team ready a hard fought match against a team that has no interest in laying down for the English giants. Political gamesmanship and the recent chemical weapons attack in Salisbury will add yet another layer of intrigue to the match, but ultimately it is down to the players on the pitch to get the job done, regardless of the spotlight. As we prepare for the first leg showdown, let’s take a look at three players who will be essential to the Gunners’ effort today at the Emirates.
This season has been all about a course correction for Jack Wilshere and his career following almost a half decade of near constant injury setbacks, and he has done an admirable job fighting his way back into contention for a regular starting place. He has shown a noticeable maturation both on and off the pitch, and he has described his fitness as better than ever this season. The 26 year old has fought his way back into the conversation for Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions World Cup squad this summer, and though he has yet to grab a starting place at Arsenal with quite the authority he might have hoped, he remains a midfielder with a technical and mental skill set unlike any of his peers in the England squad. This could force Southgate to bring Wilshere with him to Russia this summer, but first he must remain healthy for the rest of the season.
Wilshere has been in the news recently as his current contract with the club has run into its final months, and he and the team remain some distance apart in their negotiations. Wilshere and his agent are reportedly looking for an improvement on his current deal which pays him more than £100k per week, while the club is offering a reported £90k per week, with a heavy incentive package which could take his wage well up over its current level if he stays healthy and performs. However, if he is looking to improve his leverage with the team, he will need to play better than he did on Sunday against Stoke, where his passing was not nearly as precise as it usually is, and he did not find himself in dangerous areas on the ball as much as should be expected of him.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup tied and unable to play today, the Gunners will likely go with 1 striker up top and pack the midfield with creative players to dominate the ball. Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mhkitaryan will be the most advanced midfielders on the pitch, and Wilshere will likely take his place somewhere between them and a double pivot of Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey. CSKA used a 3-5-2 in their last round against Lyon, and if they continue with the same formation against the Gunners, the centre of the pitch will be a constant battle for control. Arsenal have had some success against 3 at the back formations, and they will look to put pressure on the visitors in wide areas to create overloads, which means the late arriving runs of Wilshere and Ramsey into the box could be essential to the Gunners attack if the forwards are able to drag the CSKA defence out of position.
Laurent Koscielny is expected to be back, so Wilshere will likely not be handed the captain’s armband today, but look for him to be the emotional leader from the middle of the park. He has featured heavily in Arsenal’s European campaign, and barring any late changes, he will continue to be a factor going forward. If this is to be his last season with the club, there can be no better way to say goodbye to the fans than helping them to lift European silverware, but the club, the manager, the fans, and likely his teammates will be hoping he stays on with his boyhood club. For now, all will settle for a vintage Wilshere performance in the centre of the park to start the Gunners off on the right foot in this round.
If he was currently healthy, many supporters would be pushing for Petr Cech to start today in goal for the Gunners, but it looks like the start will fall once again to Wenger’s designated Europe and cup competition goalkeeper, David Ospina. The Colombian has had a typically up and down season for both club and country, helping Arsenal get this far in the Europa League but struggling in both of the Gunners’ domestic cup eliminations. For supporters that have watched him since arriving in North London in 2014, his play has been no surprise. At this point in his career, he is a known commodity: an athletic shot stopper with top reflexes but a questionable head for the position. He is energetic and good with his feet (better, in fact, than his Czech teammate), but Ospina has a penchant for turning the routine into the dramatic and supporters into nervous wrecks. At just around 6 feet tall, he is especially weak in the air, which makes any free kick from inside 40 yards a scary proposition.
It is imperative that Ospina puts his inconsistencies aside today and perform well, as the Gunners cannot afford to allow a cheap goal early on in proceedings. They have recovered well from the disastrous 4 game losing streak that continued into the beginning of March, but this team’s struggles with confidence and mentality are well documented. The players can not afford to let doubt creep in early during this tie because the last thing they or the fans want is to go into Moscow next week with ground to make up. If Ospina struggles mightily in this match, Arsene Wenger will have a serious decision to make next week as he weighs whether his promise to his number 2 goalkeeper is worth keeping over potentially crashing out of the Europa League. He should have a full strength XI in front of him today, and the experience of players like Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi should help take some of the burden of organisation off of him. Arsenal can take a lot of pressure off of the Columbian with a fast start, so look for them to push on early in search of a goal to take charge of the match.
Considering Arsenal are known for their exciting brand of attacking football, it is somewhat surprising that it took until April 1 for a player to hit double digits in goals this season. That player, Alexandre Lacazette, had to wait more than 2 months to do it after scoring number 9 on January 20 against Crystal Palace. 3 matches without a goal and 6 weeks out with a knee injury later, he potted his 10th with his cooly taken penalty this past Sunday against Stoke. In his first match back he played 30 minutes and looked lively in his time on the pitch. Instantly, you could see what the Gunners had been missing from the centre forward position, as his linkup play and intelligent movement is unique among the Arsenal attackers. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may be the superior talent, but Lacazette is a tremendous footballer who fits perfectly into Arsene Wenger’s preferred style of play.
It may be a lot to ask of him to start today’s match against a CSKA and play all 90 minutes, but Wenger could elect to reverse the order from Sunday and replace him with Danny Welbeck after an hour. Welbeck is a hardworking player who is probably the best pressing attacker in the side, but he is not nearly as clinical as his French teammate. If Lacazette is fit enough to start, one must assume that he will be Wenger’s preferred choice to lead the line. Another strong performance with a goal contribution or two will go a long way toward winning back some of the fans that seemed ready to write him off once Aubameyang arrived. With CSKA likely opting for a back 3 with wingbacks flanking the line on either side, space will be compressed for the Arsenal attack to play through, but perhaps that is just the sort of situation in which Lacazette will thrive.