Arsenal’s quest to end Arsene Wenger’s long reign with a valedictory trophy begins when they host Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Europa League soccer semi-final on Thursday (3.05pm ET).
Last week’s announcement that Wenger will leave Arsenal at the end of the season after 22 years at the helm induced a chorus of praise from both friends and rivals. The atmosphere inside the Emirates for Sunday’s win over West Ham was largely positive.
In truth, Arsenal didn’t give their supporters much to get behind for long periods of the match. Nacho Monreal gave them the lead early into the second half, only for West Ham to equalize just after the hour. The match seemed to be drifting to a draw until a goal from Aaron Ramsey and a late double from Alexandre Lacazette drove Arsenal to a 4-1 victory.
The match seemed to act as a trial run for the Atletico encounter. The cup-tied Pierre Emerick Aubameyang began the match on the bench, with Lacazette given an opportunity to get his eye in. No rest was given to regular starters. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan unlikely to return from injury, the starting XI will be very similar on Thursday.
That victory was Arsenal’s 14th in 18 home matches in the Premier League so far this season and they will hope to leverage that strong record on Thursday. Both their last-16 triumph over Milan and quarter-final win over CSKA Moscow featured victories by two or more goals at the Emirates, while Atletico have recently had some struggles away from home.
While the Spanish side are probably worthy of their status as the favorites with the main US sportsbooks to progress, they are certainly not quite as formidable opponents as they would have been in other recent campaigns. They lie second in La Liga and have a solid chance of finishing the season there, but an early Champions League exit and generally unconvincing performances speak to certain flaws in their makeup.
It has, undoubtedly, been a season of some upheaval. The club’s transfer ban prevented them from bringing in reinforcements until January, while they have also had to accustom themselves to their new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. Winter sales left the squad looking thin for the second half of the campaign, especially as some of its younger members haven’t quite taken the step forward that was hoped of them.
There is a clear reliance on the supreme talents of Antonio Griezmann up front and Jan Oblak – a rumored summer target for Arsenal and other Premier League teams – in goal.
Atletico are, though, a team who always perform well in knockout competition. Since Diego Simeone took charge in 2011, they have won the Europa League and the Copa del Rey and twice been losing Champions League finalists, while also reaching another Champions League quarter-final and a couple of domestic semi-finals along the way. Their largely cautious, wait and break approach works well in that environment.
Unlike Wenger, Simeone did partially rotate his team in Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home to Real Betis – Atletico’s 11th consecutive clean sheet on home soil. Griezmann, Koke and Diego Godin were left out of the starting XI, while he also trialled a three centre-back system which he could again employ on Thursday. He will, though, likely be without former Chelsea striker Diego Costa, who picked up a hamstring injury in the quarter-final win over Sporting.
The absence of Costa provides Arsenal with more reason to believe that they can secure themselves an advantage ahead of the second leg in Spain next week. While he has not been in particularly prolific goal-scoring form since returning to Atletico in January, his general nuisance factor, movement and harrying of defenders helps open up space for teammates.
Arsenal are certainly not flawless themselves. They will not find it easy to penetrate the away defence and if they do, they will still have to find a way past the imposing Oblak. They should nevertheless be able to continue their good home form with a narrow win on Thursday.