Europa League: Will Atletico Madrid Spoil Arsene Wenger’s Farewell Tour?
It’s been only 12 days since Arsenal landed an apparent nightmare draw against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semifinals, but the events since have the fans dreaming of an appearance in the final.
Thursday’s meeting between the sides at the Emirates Stadium (3:05 p.m ET kick-off) has swung in the hosts’ favor with the bookies (Arsenal +168, Atletico +198, Draw +225) due to a number of contributing factors.
Chief among them has been the surprise announcement that longtime Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will leave the Londoners at the end of the season — a decision that has even the Frenchman’s most loyal supporters feeling a sense of relief. Supporters are now suddenly optimistic for the future; but first and foremost, they will be desperate for the players to give their legendary manager a fitting send-off. It would be hard for any to begrudge Wenger a trophy in his final match in charge.
Atletico still stand in the way of that opportunity of course, but Diego Simeone’s side are suffering from a dip in form and morale, and not for the first time this season. The beginning of the Spanish outfit’s campaign was littered with too many draws, but they overcame a sluggish start to rebuild an unlikely title bid ahead of a huge clash with Barcelona at the start of March.
Unfortunately for Atleti, that defeat at Camp Nou has really taken the wind out of their sails, as they have now won just one of their last five games in total, and just one of six on the road.
No Diego, No
Both teams have injury concerns ahead of the match, but the absence of Diego Costa for the visitors is a huge blow. Arsenal’s defense is far from the most impenetrable of backlines — especially when compared to that of their opponents. Additionally, Arsenal have been bullied by the former Chelsea striker on numerous occasions in the past, and he would have relished the chance to be the villain of the piece yet again.
By contrast, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan is a major doubt and fellow January signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remains ineligible for the home side, Alexandre Lacazette is fully fit and firing on all cylinders. Indeed, since a return from injury the French International has looked a new man, scoring six goals in six games, including a brace at the weekend in Arsenal’s sixth home win in a row.
The Emirates has been a happy hunting ground for Lacazette in particular, with 12 of his 15 goals for the London club coming at home in just 16 appearances. He’ll be keen to outgun compatriot Antoine Griezmann at the opposite end and at 3.30 (+230) to score at any time, Lacazette is a higher price than the Atletico hitman and the value bet in that particular market in my mind.
The Right Approach
As far as the outcome of the match as a whole is concerned, this is a tougher affair to predict between two sides with very different philosophies. Arsenal have always looked to win by offering real freedom to their players, while Simeone’s approach is far more regimented and, if his side were in good form, there’s little doubt that their superior organization and game management would make them favorites to reach the final.
The approach won’t change, that’s for sure. And as such, I would be tempted to explore the goal-times market. Atletico at their best often go ahead early in matches, and when they do, they are among the most difficult sides to break down. While the latter has been less accurate of late, Atletico have still looked to start strongly and will be hoping to unsettle their hosts.
I’d expect an aggressive start from the away side as a result, and in that sense, the opening period of the match may well be the most open. That’s been the tack in the Europa League from Atletico so far, netting inside the first 22 minutes in each of their five matches before drawing a blank in Lisbon two weeks ago; and they’ll take heart from Arsenal’s propensity to make a shaky start, particularly from a defensive standpoint.
Wenger’s side are now without a clean sheet in five matches, and their 4-1 win over West Ham at the weekend was far from convincing for the most part. In fact, Arsenal were fortunate to go in at the break without having conceded, and it was the first occasion in the past 10 that the Gunners have failed to keep a clean sheet in which their opponents hadn’t found the net in the first half.
With that in mind a bet on Atletico to score first is tempting, but there’s more security offered in tipping the visitors to net before the interval at +130, which would be my top tip for this one. For the bold amongst you, odds on the away side to be leading after 30 minutes may also be appealing at +375.
Photo: Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger greeting a fan. Credit: Arsenal FC