The Gunners were beaten 1-0 by Manchester City on Sunday, but Thursday night’s Europa League clash in Athens is far more likely to shape their season
It is not often you could describe Manchester City as the warm-up act, but that is what Sunday’s meeting with the champions elect was for Arsenal.
The fact that Mikel Arteta made five changes for the game was a clear indicator that Thursday’s clash with Benfica in the Europa League was always the clear priority for the Gunners.
It would be unfair to say Arsenal waved the white flag against City, in fact the 1-0 defeat was their joint-lowest margin of defeat against Pep Guardiola’s side in their last eight Premier League meetings.
But after Raheem Sterling had headed the Premier League leaders in front inside two minutes, they did not have to do too much to ensure they maintained their lead through to the final whistle.
Arsenal huffed and puffed, but they never looked like getting anything from the game.
They have now lost eight league matches in a row against City, including their last four at home without scoring a goal. It is the first time in the club’s history that they failed to score in four consecutive home league games against an opponent.
But while there will be disappointment at losing an 11th league game of the season, the upcoming meeting with Benfica in Athens was always going to be the headline act for Arsenal this week.
It would be premature to entirely rule them out of the battle for a top-six finish in the Premier League, given they are only six points behind sixth-placed Liverpool, but they now have plenty of work to do to get themselves into contention for a European spot.
So with the tie against Benfica poised at 1-1 after the first leg in Rome, it is understandable that Arteta already had one eye fixed firmly on this week’s trip to Greece.
“We have a final on Thursday because we want to continue in the competition,” said the Arsenal boss moments after the defeat against City. “We have to sleep, eat and we won’t have time to train then we fly to Greece.”
Arsenal crashed out of the Europa League at this stage of the competition last season when they were shocked by Olympiacos 2-1 at Emirates Stadium having returned from Greece with what had looked like a commanding 1-0 lead from the first leg.
The manner of that defeat is still fresh in the memory, so it was no surprise to see Arteta shuffle his pack against City – given the riches that winning the Europa League would bring.
Rob Holding and Pablo Mari came in for David Luiz and Gabriel Magalhaes, while Mohamed Elneny replaced Dani Ceballos and Nicolas Pepe allowed the over-used Emile Smith Rowe to have a breather.
It always looked like a tough ask against a City side who went into the game on the back of 17 straight league wins, and when Sterling was inexplicably left unmarked to head past Bernd Leno inside two minutes, the writing was on the wall.
At that point it looked like things could get ugly for Arsenal, but they rode the initial storm and settled into the game, with the fit again Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka looking lively down the left.
City were always in command, however, and although they did not extend their lead, they never looked like letting it slip, with Ederson only being called into action once to deal comfortably with Tierney’s effort from distance.
Arsenal can take some heart from the way they stayed in the game against Pep Guardiola’s side, just as they did when they were beaten by the single goal at the Etihad Stadium earlier in the season.
Results and performances have certainly improved against the top six since Arteta arrived and that should stand them in good stead for next season, but for now the priority for the Gunners has to be the Europa League and their last remaining route into the Champions League.
It has been four years now since Arsenal last dined at Europe’s top table, and their continued absence from the competition is causing an ever-growing financial headache for London’s most successful club.
Arteta is well aware what bringing Champions League football back to the Emirates would mean for him in terms of his transfer budget for the summer. With his rebuild at Arsenal not even at the halfway stage, the money on offer would be transformative in terms of his plans for the squad.
So he knows exactly what is at stake on Thursday night and how vital it is, not just for this season – but for the summer and beyond.
“It’s always been really important,” said the Gunners boss. “We are here is to win trophies for this club and this [the Europa League] is a competition we want to be linked to as well because we are participating.
“The Champions League has been massive for this club but at the moment we are not in it. The best way to get back to that is by winning this competition.”
For now, however, lifting the Europa League trophy is a long way off. Failure to take their chances in Rome last week means Arsenal head into the second leg with no room for error against a dangerous Benfica side.
So Arteta is right to describe the game as a final given what is at stake.
There have been signs since Christmas that things are heading in the right direction under the Spaniard, but the defeat against City was a reminder of the vast amount of work there is still to be done to close the gap on Europe’s elite.
Sunday was the start of a huge few days for Arsenal. Unfortunately, the warm-up act proved to be a disappointment.
For Arteta, Thursday night’s main event now takes centre stage.
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