Olympiakos Draw Offers Arsenal a Chance at European Redemption

“One day you’re a rooster, the next a feather duster.” It is one of the funniest and truest sayings in football, and although it is unclear who first coined it, it was certainly popularised by the late Ray Wilkins. It highlights the way in which the fortunes of a player, a team or a manager can turn around at lighting speed. Indeed, in the increasingly breakneck pace of the 21st century, it might be truer to say “One minute you’re a rooster, the next a feather duster”. And last night, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta came within three minutes of being plucked.

Chance of European Redemption for Arsenal

Aubameyang Returns to Form – Just in Time

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 87th-minute winner against Benfica not only saved Arsenal’s Europa League campaign but effectively saved their season. If Aubameyang had not scored his second goal of the night, to go alongside the first-half opener that had suggested Arsenal would ease to victory against Benfica before the Portuguese side surged into a 2-1 lead following two Dani Ceballos errors, then Arsenal would have had virtually nothing left to play for in 2020/21. Out of both domestic cups and back in the bottom half of the Premier League table after three defeats in four league games, the Gunners not only faced a European exit but a season exit, which might even have prompted thoughts that there should soon be a managerial exit at The Emirates.

Fortunately for Arteta, Arsenal and their fans, Aubameyang, after a fairly horrendous season by his own high standards, seems to have rediscovered his best goal-scoring form just in time. After Kieran Tierney, the man who most Arsenal fans already regard as the de facto leader of the team (at least when he is fit enough to play), had scored to drag the Gunners back to 2-2 with just over 20 minutes to go, Aubameyang completed an extraordinary comeback for Arsenal almost right at the death.

 

Olympiakos – Again!

Now, after Arsenal received a decent Europa League last 16 draw against Olympiakos, their Europa League conquerors from last season, they can look forward to the second half of the season with infinitely more confidence and ambition than would have been the case if they had exited from Europe. Consequently, instead of going to Leicester City on Sunday lunchtime looking set for certain defeat against a team who are third in the League, Arsenal can dream of making it a King Power double this season, after winning at Leicester in the Carabao Cup in the autumn. Indeed, after the Foxes experienced the reverse of Arsenal’s fortunes last night, going from rooster to feather duster when they conceded two late goals to lose to Slavia Prague and go out of the Europa League, Arsenal will hope that their hosts this weekend will be suffering from their own European hangover.

Now, for the first time this season, Arteta can claim to have made tangible, measurable progress with Arsenal, having reached the last 16 of the Europa League after losing in the round of 32 last season to Olympiakos. Drawing the Greek side in the same competition again offers Arteta and Arsenal not only a chance of redemption after losing at home to the same team so dismally a year ago but a realistic chance of progress to the quarterfinals. And the fact that two of the heaviest hitters in the competition, Manchester United and AC Milan (who between them have won the European Cup/Champions League ten times, never mind their triumphs in lesser European competitions), have been drawn against each other will only increase hope and expectation at The Emirates.

But Don’t Forget Benfica

Nevertheless, Arteta cannot ignore how close his side came to going out of the competition against Benfica, a side whose best players are probably their Premier League retirees or rejects (Jan Vertonghen, Nicolas Otamendi and Adel Taraabt). Despite dominating the ball and most of the two games they played against the Portuguese side, Arsenal came perilously close to losing. So many of the problems that have beset the Gunners this season were in evidence again against Benfica: occasional passages of good play, punctuated by stunning individual errors (two in a row from Ceballos, who surely cannot be offered the prospect of spending a third season on loan at Arsenal after his downturn this season), and above all an utter and incomplete inconsistency in how they play, not just from game to game but within individual games.

In Arteta’s defence, this pandemic-dominated season has made it almost impossible for managers to work with their teams and really develop them. That is because this season’s Covid-caused congestion means that what little time there is between actual games is largely spent on rest and recuperation, rather than the detailed development of tactics and drilling of defences that are the hallmark of the best managers.

Now, however, Arteta really must make the most of his European reprieve to try and make much greater progress in both the Europa League and the Premier League. In the Europa League, there is still the tantalising prize of a Champions League place for next season on offer to the winners, and clearly it is the only realistic way that Arsenal will get back into Europe’s premier club competition. But even in the Premier League, where they currently languish in 11th place, Arteta must aim to start putting together the run of winning games that is necessary to give them any chance of even qualifying for the Europa League next season.

The Next Few Weeks are Crucial

The next few weeks will be absolutely crucial for Arsenal’s chances of rescuing what has largely been a lamentable season and certainly not the one that Arsenal fans had hoped for after the club’s shock FA Cup win last season. The Gunners must at least avoid defeat at Leicester, which will be followed by another away game at Burnley, one of several teams this season who have won at Arsenal for the first time in decades. Then, sandwiched between the two ties against Olympiakos, Arsenal play Tottenham Hotspur at home in the North London derby.

To use another favourite footballing phrase, Arsenal have been all over the place this season, especially in the Premier League. They have achieved impressive wins over Manchester United (away) and Chelsea at home, which are not to be sniffed at after the club failed to win almost any game against fellow members of the so-called “Big Six” for nearly half a decade. However, they have also succumbed to disappointing double-defeats (home and away) against Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Now, having somehow survived what appeared to be certain elimination from Europe by Benfica, they must make the most of their last (or at least 87th) minute reprieve.

It’s Time to Get Some Consistency

Arteta must finally make hard decisions about selection and tactics, deciding definitively on whether he wants a back four or a back three, then getting Thomas Partey fully fit so that he can dominate midfield in the way that he is capable of. Finally, Arteta must improve his malfunctioning attack. The arrival of Martin Odegaard on loan from Real Madrid seems to have stalled Emile Smith Rowe’s post-Christmas progress, after the young Englishman was shunted out to the left wing to accommodate the Norwegian. The fact that Arsenal now have two Real Madrid loanees in their first team (Ceballos and Odegaard) without an option to buy either one of them is perhaps the most damning indictment of the short-term thinking that has dominated the club in recent years, since the last calamitous seasons of Arsène Wenger were followed by the even more calamitous reign of Unai Emery and the chaos caused by the Covidemic.

Arsenal fans will be delighted that they still have something to look forward to this season, having feared the worst against Benfica until right near the end. However, for Arsenal to prove that the Benfica triumph was anything more than a stay of execution before they are eliminated by one of the better teams in the Europa League, they must finally find the consistency that has almost completely eluded Mikel Arteta throughout his time at the club.

 

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