The Europa League has reached its knockout phase, and Kevin Hatchard expects fireworks when Arsenal face Benfica...
"If you look at the group games these two have already played, all 12 of them featured at least three goals. I know this is a step up in the quality of opposition, but both defences have deficiencies."
Benfica v Arsenal
Thursday 18 February, 20:00
Live on BT Sport 2
Second coming of Jesus has disappointed
Having returned to Benfica as the man who conquered Brazil and then the whole of South America as Flamengo boss, Jorge Jesus was expected to lead Benfica back to the summit of Portuguese football. Instead, the Eagles' bitter Lisbon rivals Sporting have zoomed 13 points clear of them in the title race, and an expensively-assembled squad has underperformed.
Although Benfica went through the group stage of the Europa League unbeaten, they didn't hit the heights too often. Rangers twice built two-goal leads against them, only for Benfica find a way to snatch a point on both occasions. They averaged three goals a game in attack, but also leaked nine goals along the way. If you look at their league games against the big hitters in Portugal this term, they have lost two and drawn one of their matches against Braga, Porto and Sporting.
There is plenty of quality and experience in the Benfica side. Premier League alumni Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi form the central defensive pairing, former Borussia Dortmund midfielder Julian Weigl has given his career a jump-start, and in attack Uruguayan striker Darwin Nunez has scored five UEL goals in five appearances.
UEL must now be the priority for Arteta
Of all the challengers for a top-four spot in the Premier League, Arsenal look one of the least convincing, and their next six top-flight matches could completely finish off their domestic challenge. Before the first week of April is concluded, the Gunners will have faced Manchester City, Leicester, Tottenham, West Ham and Liverpool. They are eight points adrift of the top four, and 12 off the top three.
On that basis, Arsenal's only realistic route back into the Champions League is to win the Europa League. The group stage taught us little about the strength of Arsenal's challenge - they dominated a fairly weak section in style, and were able to give plenty of minutes to some of the club's promising youngsters. Nicolas Pepe has used the tournament to play his way into form and into the Premier League starting XI - in the group stage, the Ivorian scored three goals and racked up three assists.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's return to action has been a boost, and he scored his first ever Premier League hat-trick in Sunday's 4-2 win over Leeds. The Gabon international has knocked in five goals in his last four appearances, and although he picked up an ankle injury at the weekend, he's expected to be fit. Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney are still struggling with injury.
Tough to back either side with confidence
This game will be played in Rome's Stadio Olimpico because of travel restrictions, but it is still Benfica's home leg. With the league campaign having been a huge disappointment, Benfica will take this seriously, and we can expect a strong side.
Neither team has lost in this competition so far, and although Benfica found themselves in a tricky situation twice against Rangers, they did at least have the fighting spirit to dig out a draw on both occasions.
Arsenal's away form is patchy, with four defeats and three wins from their last seven outings away from the Emirates. It's tough to back either side to win here with any confidence, and if you are going to plant your flag in either camp, I would use the Draw No Bet market to get yourself a bit of insurance. On that basis you can back Benfica at 2.26/5 and Arsenal at 1.784/5.
Goals likely in Roman clash
Both teams rattled in plenty of goals in the group stage, and although this is a step up in the quality of opponent for both, I still expect a lively encounter. All 12 of the Europa League games these teams have played this term featured at least three goals, and Over 2.5 Goals is available here at 1.865/6.
Pizzi and Nunez worth considering
Although he hasn't always been a regular starter in the Primeira Liga, Benfica midfielder Pizzi has shone in the Europa League, rattling in six goals in the group stage. He is a fine penalty taker, and if he starts the match, back him to score at 11/4 on the Sportsbook. I would put half a point on him, and half a point on Nunez at 2/1.