After a 1-1 draw in Rome last week, it's all to play for as Arsenal face Benfica in Athens. Kevin Hatchard expects the Gunners' captain to shine.
"Last week's first leg was pretty open at times, and both defences had moments to forget. I don't expect that pattern to change much here."
Arsenal v Benfica
Thursday 25 February, 17:55
Live on BT Sport 1
Gunners well short of Premier League elite
Arsenal were given another sobering reminder of their position in the Premier League pecking order at the weekend, as Manchester City struck early and then kept their opposition caged in a 1-0 success for the league leaders.
The Gunners managed an Expected Goals figure of 0.40 according to Infogol, and they only registered one shot on target. Mikel Arteta's side has now racked up 11 top-flight defeats this term, more than they suffered in the whole of last season. They have the worst attacking record in the top 10, and in the top half only Everton have a worse goal difference.
Tough as it may be to take for Arsenal fans, the Europa League is more the club's level right now, and progress in this competition should be the absolute priority.
In last week's first leg in Rome, Mikel Arteta's side fell behind through a Pizzi penalty, but equalised almost immediately through Bukayo Saka. Had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang not missed some great opportunities, Arsenal would've struck more than one away goal.
Their home leg takes place in Athens because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, but the market still gives them the edge - the north London giants are 1.834/5 to win the second leg, and 1.51/2 to qualify.
Arteta is expected to field a strong side here, but Rob Holding is out with a head injury. David Luiz and Gabriel are likely to be recalled in central defence, and the fit-again Kieran Tierney could keep his place at left-back. Although Aubameyang doesn't quite look his old self, he is likely to start in attack. Midfielder Thomas Partey is still short of full fitness.
Pressure mounting on faltering Jesus
Benfica lost further ground in the Portuguese title race at the weekend, as they drew 0-0 at lowly Farense, and the leaders Sporting beat Portimonense 2-0. It means that Jorge Jesus' side are a staggering 16 points off top spot, and they are four points adrift of the top three. Failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a bitter blow given the money that has been lavished on the squad.
Benfica did perform adequately against Arsenal last week, despite employing an unfamiliar back three. However, they gave up several big chances, and crucially they conceded a leveller just after taking the lead. Star striker Darwin Nunez was starved of service, and his German strike partner Luca Waldschmidt went off at half-time. Benfica have now won just three of their last 11 competitive matches.
Jesus is likely to pick a similar side to last week, although it remains to be seen whether he will persist with the same formation.
Gunners a bit too short to take the win
Arsenal perhaps made the clearer chances in Rome, but they didn't really dominate, and it's worth bearing in mind that Benfica's goals now count double at a neutral venue. The Portuguese giants aren't winning many, but they are tough to beat. They haven't yet suffered a defeat in this competition, and they showed fighting spirit to twice overcome two-goal deficits in group games against Rangers.
I'm not excited about the prospect of backing Arsenal to win here at odds-on, but I don't have enough confidence in Benfica to lay the Gunners either.
Stick with goals, despite last week's score
I tipped Over 2.5 Goals ahead of last week's first leg, and although it finished 1-1, I'm happy to do so again. Benfica need to try to score, and an early goal either way would really open this up. Neither defence looked rock solid in an open first leg, and I'll back Over 2.5 Goals at 1.981/1.
Aubameyang to make his mark
Although he wasn't at his clinical best last week, Aubameyang got into some great goalscoring positions, and that's always an encouraging sign. He scored a hat-trick against Leeds recently, and he has six goals in last eight appearances. He's a big-game player (think of the FA Cup last season) and I'll back him to find the net at 5/4.
Kevin Hatchard 2021 Europa League knockout phase P/L
Points Staked: 9
Points Returned: 13.63
P/L: +4.63 points