Thursday’s ‘home’ clash against Benfica is the biggest game of Mikel Arteta’s reign as Arsenal manager and it’s only the Europa League round of 32 tie. So much hinges on this competition: future plans, internal and external belief, finance, allure, credibility…to name but a few.
Even if passage is secured to the next round there will still be seven matches standing between Arsenal and the likelihood of no European football whatsoever, and playing in the Champions League. This is a competition that still has Manchester United, Leicester, Milan, Roma, Sp*rs and a certain Villarreal left.
Last season’s FA Cup saw Arsenal inherit the underdog tag, a position the team thrived under in the temporary 3-4-3 setup Arteta implemented. They were never expected to beat Chelsea in the final, or even Man City in the semi-final, and while that victory ensured European football stayed in north London, Arteta’s time in charge wasn’t to be defined by what happened at Wembley.
In the job for 14 months now, with the club languishing in mid-table in the Premier League and unlikely, but not impossible, to secure a European berth let alone a top four spot, everything appears to ride on this competition. Namely, Thursday.
Will Mikel Arteta be sacked as Arsenal manager if Benfica win the Europa League round of 32 tie on Thursday?
There is no shame in losing to better opposition in Europe. Sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green, an individual error can prove costly or your striker forgets his shooting boots. Benfica are not better opposition, that was visible in the first leg. They were poor.
This is a game Arsenal are favourites for, even if the circumstances of the venue and the dangerous 1-1 scoreline still have this tie firmly in the balance. If Arteta crashes out at this stage for the second season running, it would be catastrophic.
But not fatal.
Winning the Europa League would be transformative. It would inject money, hope, opportunity and, also importantly, bring European silverware to the Emirates. Lose, and it opens Pandora’s box. Arteta would have serious questions asked of him. Some he may not have an answer to.
However, relieving him of his duties would set the club back further. Arsenal have invested as much into Arteta the man as they have Arteta the professional. Removing the project manager when the structural foundations have only just been laid abandons the point of hiring a young coach to oversee a monumental rebuild. Regardless of what one thinks may happen after Thursday, it won’t. The club won’t sack him.
Crashing out of the Europa League would cut deep. Arsenal are anything but favourites to win it – regardless of what Le Professeur says – but they still have as much chance as any. They’ve shown their ability to conquer knockout competitions and overturn inferiority in the face of adversity.
All is simple, then; win the game. If Arsenal can get through this tie without hearing ‘away goals’ uttered at any point, that would be a start.
Not scoring enough goals has been the crux of this season. Put that to bed and put Benfica to the sword. Don’t let the vultures return to the Emirates, baying for blood and broken spirits. Just win the damn thing.