Despite the first-leg defeat in Spain, Arsenal’s chances of making it an all-English final are still firmly in play following a narrow 2-1 loss to Villarreal in which both sides had a man sent off.
Arsenal did their best to prepare for the all-important second leg at the Emirates on Thursday with a comfortably dominant 2-0 victory over Newcastle last Sunday, as striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang returned to the scoresheet.
While the first-leg result is not how many Arsenal fans would have liked to be before the all-important decider, Nicolas Pepe’s crucial penalty while a man-down could have huge implications on the game come the conclusion of play tonight.
In some ways, a final appearance means more to boss Mikel Arteta than just about anyone else, as questions about the teams Premier League form continue to betray their European foray, the club currently positioned ninth in the table.
News that both left-back Kieran Tierney and striker Alexandre Lacazette could return will give the squad a boost, especially in freeing up Granit Xhaka to return to midfield having filled in admirably in defence against Newcastle.
Their opponents will be without Tottenham Hotspur loanee Juan Foyth through injury, as well as midfielders Vincent Iborra and Etienne Capoue – the latter also sent off in the first leg.
With all this in mind, this is how Arteta is likely to line his side up against the Spanish club for the second leg…
German stopper Bernd Leno looks likely to start for the second leg, his position as the first-choice ‘keeper yet still safe ahead of growing fan favourite, Mat Ryan. News this week that the former Bayern Leverkusen player is stalling over a new contract will do nothing to focus the team, but his position in goal is likely to be unaffected by any potential summer move.
In defence, the likely return of Scottish left-back Kieran Tierney is likely to be a huge boost, allowing Xhaka to return to his regular position. The injury report is less king to David Luiz who looks set to miss out after a slight hamstring injury in the game against Newcastle, meaning that Rob Holding and Pablo Mari are the likely starting centre-back combination. Right-back is being split between Hector Bellerin and Callum Chambers, with the Englishman likely to resume duties in the European competition.
Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 formation will likely be cemented by the return of Granit Xhaka to centre-midfield as the Swiss player continues to improve on his reliability as the partner to summer-signing, Thomas Partey in front of the defence. In front of them, the decision between Norwegian Real-Madrid loanee, Martin Odegaard and home-grown talent Emile Smith-Rowe is tight, but it seems that Odegaard has developed some trust with Arteta and looks set to start his successive game.
Up-front, Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang’s goal last Sunday looks to cement his position up top, especially with Lacazette still a question mark to make the bench, let alone start this crucial game. He will likely be flanked by the talented pairing of Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka, who may have been PFA Young Player of the Year if not for Manchester City’s Phil Foden. Pepe’s emergence as a serious starting contender and reliable option from the spot has shown a second-year jump in maturity that many Arsenal fans might have hoped for after a tough opening season in English football.