Impressive Arsenal tear Slavia Prague apart to set up Unai Emery reunion

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Sam Dean
·26 min read
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Arsenal tear Slavia Prague apart to set up Unai Emery reunion in Europa League semi-finals - Reuters
Arsenal tear Slavia Prague apart to set up Unai Emery reunion in Europa League semi-finals - Reuters
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In this season of turbulence and turmoil for Arsenal, there have been occasional moments when Mikel Arteta’s grand masterplan has been visible for all to see. It has not happened often enough, and there have been plenty of moments of despair and dejection too, but every now and then they appear to be a team of genuine quality.

Against Slavia Prague, on a night when winning was all that mattered, Arteta’s players produced the sort of football he has been trying so hard to instil. They played seemingly without nerves, and certainly without hesitation, as they swept into the Europa League semi-finals for the third time in four seasons. Unai Emery, their former head coach now at Villarreal, awaits in the next round.

It is a delicious prospect, and one which should be wonderfully entertaining on the touchline as well as on the pitch. Emery knows all about Arsenal’s players, although he rarely saw them shine as brightly as they did in the first half in Prague.

“It was fantastic from start to finish,” said Bukayo Saka, the teenage sensation who excelled again on the right wing. “It shows everyone how exciting we can be. When we play like this it is amazing to be involved in. We have a chance of winning this competition. It is up to us.”

No matter what happens in the rest of this strange campaign, Arteta can point to this performance as proof that his overall strategy has promise. Slavia are a fine side, who had already defeated Leicester City and Rangers in this competition, but they were torn to pieces by Arsenal’s combination of youth and speed.

Not for the first time this season, it was the youngsters who led the way. Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe were at their devastating best in a scintillating first half, carrying the ball with menace and combining with Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe.

In the end there was no need for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, suffering at home with malaria, as the resurgent Alexandre Lacazette continued to lead the line. After scoring twice against Sheffield United on Sunday, the Frenchman added two more to take his tally for the season to 17, three more than Aubameyang.

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After 90 minutes of sluggish and wasteful football in the first leg, Arsenal killed the tie in the space of six first-half minutes. Pepe, Lacazette and Saka all struck in succession, ripping into the home side’s defence at a relentless pace.

On nights like this they make it look easy. Unfortunately for Arsenal, they have tended to follow up such performances with dreadful showings, swinging back into crisis mode due to their own maddening inconsistency.

It was the erratic nature of the team that had made this tie so nervy for so many of Arsenal’s supporters. A failure to progress had been deemed unthinkable for Arteta, who had insisted before the game that he had not even considered the possibility of Arsenal missing out on European football next season.

That prospect remains very real, though, with their league form so patchy. The Europa League is the big hope, and Emery represents the next big obstacle, but they will take hope from the clinical nature of this stirring away win.

The battle lines had been drawn before kick-off, when Arsenal’s players requested to take the knee in the ongoing protest against racism. Just a day earlier, Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela had been banned for 10 matches for racially abusing Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara.

 Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta  - Reuters
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta - Reuters

Slavia’s players stood as Arsenal knelt, with Lacazette doing so on the halfway line right in front of the opposition. It was a powerful image, backed up by a powerful performance on a night when Arsenal’s season was genuinely on the line.

Arsenal had not played a game of this importance since last year’s FA Cup final against Chelsea. On that day, they rose to the occasion. It was the blueprint for Arteta and his players to follow in Prague, and they did so to spectacular effect. “We were brave,” said Arteta.

Smith Rowe had the ball in the net in the 15th minute, but he was denied by a Var check that revealed a marginal offside. It felt like a cruel blow, but it was forgotten a few moments later.

Again it was Smith Rowe causing problems, dancing past a couple of challenges before slipping a pass into Pepe. Without much space, Arsenal’s record signing still finished superbly.

Smith Rowe was soon off again, racing into the space behind the Slavia defence and picking out Saka. The teenager was brought down, the penalty was awarded. Lacazette doubled the lead.

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Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans could not have expected a start like this against a team with a formidable home record. And there was more to come. Calum Chambers found Saka, who cut inside and drilled his finish into the corner like a man who had been doing this sort of thing for years, rather than a teenager in his first season as a forward.

The game was done already, with Arsenal content to sit back and wait for opportunities to counter after the break. Pepe and Lacazette took those chances gleefully, and Lacazette soon converted again. Receiving Pepe’s cross, he shifted the ball from right foot to left before lashing his finish inside the near post. The European fight goes on. Arsenal’s season is not finished yet.

Arteta hails players' bravery after impressive win

By Sam Dean

Mikel Arteta hailed the “bravery” of his Arsenal players as they produced arguably the finest performance of their season to keep alive their hopes of winning the Europa League.

Arsenal swept to an emphatic 4-0 victory over Slavia Prague to book a place in the semi-finals, where they will meet former head coach Unai Emery, now in charge of Villarreal.

Arteta reserved special praise for his young stars, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, who helped to drag the team forward in the absence of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Aubameyang revealed before kick-off that he has contracted malaria following the recent international break, and that he has spent two days in hospital this week.

“Credit to the players for how they approached the game and how brave they were,” said Arteta. “We were brave, we were efficient, we put them under a lot of pressure and we were really clinical.

“For me it is a joy to watch [Saka and Smith Rowe] play, to watch them every day in training. How they behave, the passion and the commitment they have for the club. You have to let them express themselves.”

On a good night for English clubs in Europe, with Manchester United beating Granada 2-0, Arteta was not able to put a date on Aubameyang’s possible return.

“He is at home, he is fine,” said Arteta. “He had two days in hospital to get the right treatment, but he’s feeling good now. He will need a few days to recover from that, but he wants to be back as soon as possible. That’s what he said to me.”

The stirring attacking performance came after Arsenal’s players asked for permission to take the knee in protest against racism, doing so in front of the Slavia players before kick-off. The match came one day after Slavia defender Ondrej Kudela was banned for 10 matches for racially abusing Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara.

“The players came to me, they wanted to take that initiative,” said Arteta. “We spoke with the club to make sure that we could follow the rules of Uefa and we can do it in the right way.

“We decided to take that approach, which I really like from the players, and I must say that Uefa was very supportive as well. The captains came to me and asked me to do that, and I just supported them like the club did.”

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08:58 PM

Some stats

  • Arsenal have scored 3+ goals in four consecutive away games in all competitions for the first time since December 1932 (5 games).

  • Arsenal kept a clean sheet in a European game for the first time in eight games, since a 3-0 away win over Molde in the UEFA Europa League in November 2020.

  • Nicolas Pépé has been directly involved in nine goals in his 10 starts for Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League (4 goals, 5 assists).

  • Emile Smith Rowe registered his seventh assist in all competitions this season, the joint-most of any Arsenal player in 2020-21 (level with Willian).

  • Only Radamel Falcao (20) and Kevin Gameiro (19) have scored more UEFA Europa League knockout stage goals than Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette (18).

08:56 PM

Manchester United will face Roma in the other semi-final

The possibility of an all-English final looms. Arsenal and United last met in European competition in the 2009 Champions League semi-finals, when Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney ripped Arsenal apart.

08:54 PM

You sense Emery might enjoy the semi-final

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08:53 PM

Lacazette's second goal

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08:52 PM

FT: Slavia 0 Arsenal 4

Well that was ridiculously easy in the end. Arsenal tore Slavia apart in the first half and put away the kind of chance they squandered in the first leg. Credit to Arteta for coming up with this unusual hybrid system using Xhaka at left-back with Ceballos drifting over to that side. It's restored some balance to Arsenal's play after the loss of Tierney.

They will face Unai Emery and Villareal in the semis!

08:49 PM

Just one minute added on

Arsenal are there.

08:48 PM

90 minutes

Arsenal seeing the game out well. Arteta will be pleased by their professionalism with the lead. No hint of a self-destruct button in their game. Will surely be just a minute or two of added time.

08:46 PM

88 minutes

Balogun gets his chance: Pepe is the man to make way. Arsenal finish the match with three young strikers on the pitch.

08:45 PM

86 minutes

Very nearly a superb goal from Martinelli, skinning the left-back, driving into the box, but he could to wrap his right instep around the ball and it goes wide.

08:43 PM

84 minutes

Xhaka wins another 50:50, he has used his body well in the challenges tonight. Ceballos tries to send Nketiah clear but the striker does not quite get there.

08:41 PM

82 minutes

Martinelli booked for having the audacity to have his leg trapped under a Slavia defender. Really strange decision. Arsenal have a corner after more good work from Ceballos.

08:39 PM

80 minute

Arsenal enjoying themselves now and Pepe's through ball is not quite right for Martinelli. Not sure even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans thought they would be four up in the 80th minute.

08:37 PM

Triple Arsenal change on the way

Martinelli, Nketiah and Cedric coming on for Lacazette, Saka and Partey coming off. The three of them have been excellent, Partey has flown under the radar with all the goals. Has not put a foot wrong.

08:36 PM

GOOOOAAALLL! Lacazette scores his second

He was the villain last week when he missed that one-on-one, but Lacazette has his second of the night. Xhaka released Pepe, he picked out Lacazette in the box who took his time, a touch, then drilled his left-foot shot home.

08:34 PM

75 minutes

Arsenal knocking the ball around, Slavia have completely packed in now. Such a show of defiance before the game rolling over and having their tummies tickled.

08:32 PM

73 minutes

The game looks as good as done now but Arsenal enjoy some possession high up the pitch. The flag goes up for offside against Elneny of all players. Not sure he was brought on to burst forward.

08:28 PM

70 minutes

Provod cuts inside but Arsenal charged down his shot well and the ball sailed through harmlessly to Leno. Arsenal have been pretty solid without the ball tonight. Holding strong in the area to defend a cross and win a foul.

08:27 PM

68 minutes

Pepe thought he had a throw in, but given for Slavia. Lest we forget it was his fabulous finish that set Arsenal on their way, a minute or so after the body blow of having a goal disallowed after a Var check.

08:25 PM

65 minutes

Lovely football from Arsenal playing out from the back, then Ceballos released Pepe with a lovely pass but the flag was up for offside. Arsenal sub: Mohamed Elneny is coming on for Emile Smith Rowe.

08:22 PM

63 minutes

Smith Rowe fouled. This game is slowing down now which suits Arsenal just fine. Not real signs of a comeback or any late drama. Then Ceballos has gone down rather dramatically, looking to get Olayinka sent off, but the Slavia forward is booked, Bit ridiculous from Ceballos, no need to give the opposition ammunition.

08:18 PM

60 minutes

Smith Rowe looks like he might be tiring which is understandable given his recent injury. Holding gives a foul away on halfway but Arsenal have reached the hour mark unscathed with their lead intact.

08:17 PM

58 minutes

Lacazette tried to release Pepe down the left but Ceballos got in the way of the pass. Slavia enjoy a little more possession but they have looked quite toothless so far. Arteta still barking out instructions when his players are out of possession.

Then Arsenal break and Lacazette goes down in the area, but was already slipping.

08:14 PM

56 minutes

Xhaka penalised for a regulation foul but Pepe is also down on halfway for reasons the TV producers won't let us see. Looks like Slavia are going to sling this wide free-kick into the box. Olayinka wins a header but he was always backpeddling and the ball spooned up on to roof of the net.

08:11 PM

53 minutes

The big centre-back Zima almost got a shot off in the box but Partey got a good block in. Arsenal do not want to offer them any encouragement. The corner is taken short but Slavia take it short and turn down the chance to throw the ball into the box. Then they win a corner from Ceballos.

08:09 PM

51 minutes

Saka leading the attack again, but he does not quite pick out the final pass. Slavia come forward but Arsenal get bodies behind the ball and slow the attack down.

08:08 PM

49 minutes

Arsenal have a corner after good work from Smith Rowe. His movement has pulled Slavia all over the place. Chambers tries to win a header at the back post but the contact was not clean. Then Holding concedes a foul.

08:07 PM

47 minutes

Arsenal deal well with a long ball forward and Leno claims. It seems as if Slavia have waved the right flag by bringing Staciu, Bah, Hromada and Boril off at the break.

08:04 PM

We're back under way!

Slavia need a goal and a prayer.

08:04 PM

Loads of changes from Slavia

A triple sub but Sima is not among them.

07:59 PM

This is almost a bigger story than the football that followed

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07:56 PM

Pretty despicable by Slavia...

And the karma was of the John Lennon variety: Instant!

Arsenal captain Alexandre Lacazette (R) takes a knee to support anti racism ahead of the UEFA Europa League quarter final - Shutterstock
Arsenal captain Alexandre Lacazette (R) takes a knee to support anti racism ahead of the UEFA Europa League quarter final - Shutterstock

07:48 PM

HT: Slavia 0 Arsenal 3

Well, that could not have gone any better. They had an electric 10 minutes which yielded three goals, but Arteta will also be pleased by the fact they reached the break with a clean sheet. They just need a sensible half to reach the semi-finals.

07:46 PM

46 minutes

A long ball runs through to Leno. Arsenal just need to see out this next 60 seconds.

07:46 PM

45 minutes

A series of fouls down the near side of the pitch, the last one by Pepe and he gets a talking too from the referee. Xhaka reads the game well in his own area and then wins a throw. Just two minutes of stoppage time.

07:43 PM

43 minutes

Holding headed clear and then Saka very nearly sent Lacazette clean through but he just lacked a touch of space to get there. Arsenal looking so dangerous on the counter again.

07:42 PM

41 minutes

Xhaka has not had his best night on the ball but it playing out of position. Partey then tried to send Saka long when he wanted to come shot. Olayinka starting to cause a few problems down the right but Partey and Ceballos do good defensive work. Slavia corner after a shot deflects off Lacazette.

07:41 PM

The story of the night

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07:40 PM

39 minutes

Slavia enjoying some possession deep in Arsenal's half and worked their way into the box but Stanciu's shot was blocked by Partey. Saka then fouled on halfway as Arsenal tick the clock down towards half time.

07:37 PM

37 minutes

A little better from Slavia. Olayinka gets in behind Xhaka and flicks the ball back into the path of the right-back Bah but he blasts well over the bar. That will keep Arsenal's back four honest though.

07:36 PM

36 minutes

Holding touch tight and wins a booming tackle. Sums up Arsenal's performance so far. They were a little nervy in the first few minutes but have put their foot on Slavia's throat and kept it there.

07:34 PM

34 minutes

Chambers gets forward well again and Zima heads away for a corner. Saka taking his time over it. Some pushing and shoving in the area. Arsenal do not need to get involved in anything. Holding tries to get a shot away but kicked Olayinka's foot.

07:33 PM

32 minutes

Slavia finally getting some possession but are yet to test Leno. Partey tries to find the run of Pepe down the left and it wins Arsenal some territory with a throw-in.

07:31 PM

30 minutes

Holding lets a long ball bounce but sweeps up eventually. Partey fills in in the right-back area and hammers the ball away. Chambers, Holding and Mari lack pace but they should suit sitting in now Arsenal have the lead.

07:30 PM

Arsenal's third goal

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07:29 PM

28 minutes

The gameplan is so different now for Arsenal. They just need to be conservative and avoid doing anything mad. Getting to half time will be a target. Saka almost plays Smith Rowe in.

07:28 PM

26 minutes

Arsenal nearly in again! Chambers piling forward and his low cross was cut out when Smith Rowe was waiting for a tap-in. At the other end, Xhaka got in a tangle but the referee told Bah to get up.

07:25 PM

GOOOOOALLLL! Arsenal go three up

Saka with almost a carbon copy of the strike that led to the disallowed goal. Arsenal getting so much space again, Chambers does really well to keep the move going and fed Saka who ducked inside and drilled a shot inside the near post. That's almost game over.

07:23 PM

22 minutes

When Arteta's head hit the pillow last night, he would not have dared to dream of a start this good. The story of the game has completely changed. Arsenal just need to keep a lid on things.

07:21 PM

GOOOAAALLL! Lacazette buries it

Arsenal in control of the tie now. Slavia need to score three. Have they done it too early though? So much of the game to play, but they look like cutting through Slavia at will.

07:21 PM

Penalty Arsenal! Wow what a start this is

Slavia are falling apart, so much space behind their defence. Smith Rowe span, laid the ball back to Saka and Hromada brought him down. Lacazette to take.

07:19 PM

It's official: Goal stands

There was another check though!

07:19 PM

GOOOOAALLL! Now they do lead

What a reply from Arsenal. Smith Rowe almost had his goal with a shot blocked, but he worked the ball to Pepe on the left who did brilliantly to keep his balance under pressure from the defender and finish into the roof of the net from a tight angle.

07:18 PM

17 minutes

For some reason, Uefa are not letting us see a replay. Arsenal need to take encouragement and not feel sorry for themselves in the coming minutes.

07:17 PM

Var check: Goal disallowed for offside

We can't even see the replays, this really is a farce. Dreadful stuff.

07:15 PM

GOOOOAAALLLL! Arsenal lead if it's onside

A moment of individual brilliance from Saka. Arsenal broke at pace and the winger cut inside from the right an unleashed a shot on his left foot that crashed off the far post and Smith Rowe was there to turn home the rebound. But was it onside?

07:14 PM

14 minutes

A few too many loose touches from Arsenal, this time Chambers' throw gets away from Saka. Ceballos very nearly sets Pepe away with an early through ball after link play from Lacazette. Arsenal just need to focus on executing the technical basics correctly: first touch, weight of pass.

07:12 PM

12 minutes

Xhaka with a loose touch in midfield which forced Partey into a sliding foul. Got away with the tackle without a yellow card. Arsenal not really pressing super high in the opening minutes. Slavia seeing a fair bit of the ball. No big chance in the game as of yet.

07:10 PM

10 minutes

Good football from Arsenal and Lacazette almost heads down Chambers' cross into the path of Ceballos. Pepe has started wide left, Saka on the right but they could easily swap over as this progresses.

07:08 PM

8 minutes

Foul from Mari on halfway but there is a much better tempo to this game than the first leg. Slavia looking fairly lively you have to say, pushing bodies forward. Arsenal just standing off and having a look at things.

07:06 PM

6 minutes

Slavia with a dangerous attack down their left, Arsenal looked a bit one paced when running in reverse. Chambers is fouled in the area though and Arsenal can breathe a sigh of relief.

Leno kicks long and out to the left. Ceballlos finds Pepe with a good ball but the Spaniard wanted too long after the return pass and Lacazette gives a foul away.

07:04 PM

4 minutes

Lacazette knocks the ball straight out of play, not the best first involvement. Arsenal win the ball back but Smith Rowe lets a ball run loose and the hosts have a throw. All a bit frenetic in the early moments. Arsenal trying to show Slavia to their left when they build from the back.

07:03 PM

2 minutes

There is a sparse home crowd trying to make as much noise as possible. The early territory is deep in the Slavia half where Arsenal win a throw, then Partey finds Pepe with a cute pass and his cross deflects behind for a corner. Ceballos to take from the left. Slavia clear and Xhaka gets away with taking his time on halfway.

07:01 PM

We're under way!

Slavia's plays stood in a huddle when Arsenal's took a knee not a good look to say the least of it.

Arsenal get us started.

06:57 PM

The players are on their way out

Arsenal are in for a tense, nerve-jangler of a night which has huge consequences for their immediate future (unless they score a few early goals that it).

06:53 PM

Aubameyang reveals the reason for his absence: He contracted Malaria

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That puts pay to any rumours his illness was not genuine.

06:49 PM

Arsenal going through their paces

Granit Xhaka and Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal warm up prior to the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Slavia Praha and Arsena - Getty Images
Granit Xhaka and Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal warm up prior to the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Slavia Praha and Arsena - Getty Images

06:35 PM

Bernd Leno reflects on the first leg

"I think you’re right we have to improve because in the last couple of minutes we became a bit nervous. The manager analysed straight after the game and said that our game management was not good and we need to keep the ball in their half not our half and don’t play backwards."

06:09 PM

Arsenal arrive

Arsenal Mo Elneny arrives before the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Slavia Praha and Arsenal FC  - Getty Images
Arsenal Mo Elneny arrives before the UEFA Europa League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Slavia Praha and Arsenal FC - Getty Images

06:03 PM

Pepe, Saka and Smith Rowe behind Lacazette for Arsenal

The interesting thing about those three behind the striker is they could set up in any configuration. All three are comfortable left, right or central. I suspect it will be Smith Rowe left, Saka central and Pepe right but Smith Rowe and Saka could well be the other way around.

05:53 PM

Folarin Balogun on the Arsenal bench

The young striker is on the verge of signing a new contract and it seems that decision has got him back in Arteta's immediate plans. He has not been involved with the first-team since December.

05:50 PM

Mixing and matching

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05:46 PM

It's official: Arsenal's account has Xhaka at left back

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05:43 PM

The Slavia starting XI - Sima starting on the bench is an interesting call

Kolar, Bah, Holes, Zima, Boril, Hromada, Sevcik, Stanciu, Provod, Olayinka, Kuchta

05:41 PM

Xhaka continues at left-back (it seems)

That worked very well against Sheffield United, with Xhaka operating on the left of a back three when Arsenal had possession. This is how it looked with the ball:

Arsenal vs Sheffield Utd - Opta
Arsenal vs Sheffield Utd - Opta

The question is whether Slavia will be able to test Xhaka more in one-against-ones, especially if Abdallah Sima plays on the right. Pablo Mari also comes in to offer some leadership and calmness but it's an Arsenal back four that is lacking pace. Positioning will need to be spot on.

Alternatively, Saka could play at left-back but that looks doubtful.

05:34 PM

Arsenal team is in! One change from Sheffield United

Leno; Chambers, Holding, Mari, Xhaka; Partey, Ceballos; Saka, Smith Rowe, Pepe; Lacazette

Subs: Ryan, Hillson, Bellerin, Gabriel, Willian, Cedric, Nelson, Elneny, Nketiah, Martinelli, Balogun, Azeez

05:33 PM

All eyes on the team news

Will Arteta stick with Willian or bring in Pepe or Martinelli? Given Martinelli's lack of first-team football over the last year I think they may well be cautious and view Sunday's match against Fulham as an ideal fixture to give him another start. You need to take a longer view with a talent of his age.

03:31 PM

The biggest game of Arsenal's season (since the last one)

Benfica was the biggest game of Arsenal and Mikel Arteta's season. Olympiacos was the biggest game of Arsenal and Mikel Arteta's season. Now Slavia Prague is the biggest game of Arsenal and Mikel Arteta's season.

If you hadn't noticed, the Europa League is quite important for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta's season. Despite a broadly positive spell of form since Christmas, Arsenal's league season cannot be viewed as anything other than sub-standard. They are in the strange position of being more likely to qualify for the Champions League than the Europa League, but to stand a chance of achieving that lofty ambition they must progress beyond a competitive Slavia side who pinched an away goal at the Emirates.

The first leg last week was a bizarrely plodding affair. Slavia coach Jindřich Trpišovský bemoaned the fact his team did not press as high or effectively as they usually do, while Arsenal were generally poor but wasted three or four big chances which could have put the tie to bed. Arteta was criticised for not picking Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pepe or Gabriel Martinelli, and waiting until the 77th minute to introduce Aubameyang and Pepe, who scored a very good goal. Both teams will want to show a different face this evening.

The one thing Arsenal have is clarity. They need to score at least one goal and aim to win the game (though any score draw above 1-1 would also do the job). There is little to be gained by keeping things tight.

Arteta's hand will also be forced by the probable absences of Aubameyang and Martin Odegaard. It means Alexandre Lacazette will lead the line, and it is vital Arteta balances the attack with complementary players around Lacazette. He is a good combination player around the box, but needs forwards who can run beyond when he comes short. The balance looked wrong in the first leg against Slavia with Willian, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka behind him but looked far better at Sheffield United when Pepe and Martinelli provided some cutting edge from the flanks. Arteta must also decide whether to revert to back-up full-back Cedric on the left of his defence or continue with Granit Xhaka there in a hybrid deep midfielder/left centre-back role. Remember, he will have five substitutions up his sleeve thanks to Uefa rules.

Full team news on the way shortly.