Our FA Cup exit at the hands of Southampton means Mikel Arteta has a full week on the training ground to prepare for the visit of Leeds United on Sunday. Weirdly, as was the case back in November, we come into the game gnashing our teeth over a defeat to Aston Villa.
We were 11th in the table when we went to Elland Road. And we’re 11th in the table now. In between, we’ve embarked on a wretched run that reached its nadir just before Christmas. And a decent spell that saw us briefly flirt with an unlikely challenge for a Champions League spot. With 15 games remaining, it’s hard to tell what might come next.
What I do know, is that after the tragi-comic defeat to Wolves and our frustrating failure to break down Villa, I’m not particularly looking forward to the next five games in the league. After Sunday’s match-up with Bielsa, we’ve got Manchester City, Leicester, Burnley and Sp*rs. What constitutes a passable points return from that? Even wearing rose-tinted glasses, 10 points from 15 seems like a tall order. What’s more, things don’t ease up after that. Matches with high-flying West Ham and Liverpool take us into April.
As things stand, nine points separate us from the top four. It doesn’t feel that big but when you consider how hard we’ve found climbing the table in recent weeks, it’s a gap that looks increasingly insurmountable. Realistically even finishing in the top six is going to be a challenge. Given we’re out of the domestic cups, eyes turn to the Europa League and ending a continental trophy drought that dates back to 1994.
Yesterday, we got confirmation from Uefa that Arsenal’s last-32 tie with Benfica will remain a two-legged affair but both games, to take place on 18 and 25 February respectively, will be played on neutral territory.
The two clubs have been in discussions about alternative arrangements ever since the UK government placed Portugal on a travel ‘red list’ due to concerns about new Covid-19 variants. While Arsenal could have travelled to Lisbon, a 10-day spell in quarantine on our return was never going to be feasible. For those wondering why our home game is also being moved, it’s down to the Portuguese not being allowed in the UK at all. You can see why that might be difficult.
According to various reports, we weighed up Uefa-approved stadia in Spain and France before settling on Italy and Greece. Yesterday afternoon, Arsenal ran a story confirming that next week’s ‘away’ game will be played at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. They also stated that we’d ‘host’ Benfica 1,500 miles from London at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens. Cue jokes about drawing Olympiacos again.
However, late last night, I spotted that the club had edited the original story to remove mention of the second leg. I suspect the Greek government’s decision to impose a stricter lockdown on their capital city means we’re now searching for an alternative to the alternative. God knows where we’ll end up next. Baku, anyone? Could the game be played as a one-off after all?
If things continue like this – and there’s nothing to suggest they won’t – Uefa has a real problem on its hands. Several other games in the Champions League and Europa League are in the process of being relocated which begs the question, is the integrity of the competition at stake if some teams enjoy actual home advantage while others do so in name only? The away-goals rule is a cumbersome mechanic at the best of times, its use in the coming months could be almost farcical.
Last season, the Europa League and Champions League concluded with mini-tournaments hosted in bubble-environments in Germany and Portugal once domestic campaigns had ended. There’s no room for that this summer unless Uefa sacrifices or moves the already delayed European Championships. As things stand there are just 19 days between the Premier League ending and Turkey facing Italy in the Euro ‘2020’ curtain-raiser.
All in all, it’s a bit of a mess. But it’s a mess we’d rather be involved in.
Make no bones about it, the Europa League offers a viable, albeit complicated, route back to the Champions League and we have to make it a priority in light of our financial difficulties. We’re not quite in ‘all eggs in one basket’ territory but we’re moving in that direction.
With that in mind, I do wonder whether Mikel Arteta will be tempted to rotate against Leeds this weekend. If there are any doubts over the fitness of Thomas Partey, who limped off against Villa, I’d be wrapping him in cotton wool. Likewise, Emile Smith Rowe. Give Ceballos and Odegaard some game time instead. If Kieran Tierney is on the mend, I’d rather he started in Rome than against Leeds.
We’ll probably have to wait at least another 24 hours for the weekend’s team news but if anything does drop today, we’ll cover it on Arseblog News.
Right, having been a late call-up for today’s blog duty, I’d better get on with my morning.
Whatever you’re doing, have a good one.