Arsenal have managed to steady the ship somewhat since their abject defeats by Manchester City and Brighton.
Their accomplished display in the first leg of their last-16 Europa League tie against Milan last Thursday gives Arsene Wenger’s side something to play for this season. With Dortmund, Atletico Madrid and Lazio still left in the competition, the hope of outright victory may seem unrealistic. But the outside chance of a Champions League place seems to have galvanised the North London side.
Given the Gunners’ brittle confidence, the first goal tonight will be crucial. Should the Rossoneri get an early goal and smell blood, it would not be a surprise to see Arsenal capitulate. Their near-catastrophic 2-1 defeat to Österund at the Emirates in the previous round is still fresh in the memory.
“Europe gives you a psychological problem,” Wenger said yesterday. “When you have won away from home, you have to finish the job at home but it is not easy because it always puts the team who is playing against you in the position of having nothing to lose.”
Arsenal should be nearly at full strength. Only the cup-tied Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injured Alexandre Lacazette missing.
Aaron Ramsey was rested against Watford but he has trained and will come back into the side. Speaking yesterday, the Wales international warned against complacency going into tonight’s game. “It’s a massive opportunity for us so it’s something we’ve got to be prepared to give everything for to try to achieve,” Ramsey said. “This game is very important for us and our season.”
Mesut Ozil took part in yesterday’s open training session despite suffering an ankle knock at the weekend. Shkodran Mustafi suffered a groin injury against the Hornets and had to be replaced. However he also trained on Wednesday and is expected to line up alongside Laurent Koscielny at the heart of the defence.
As for Milan, their European pedigree alone should ensure a performance tonight. A win over Genoa at the weekend, with a 93rd minute winner from Andre Silva, sees their recent revival continue under Gennaro Gattuso. The seven-time Champions League winners are now unbeaten in the league in nine. This is what makes the ease with which Arsenal dispatched Gattuso’s side in last week’s tie so surprising.
“I heard a lot of talk about our physical shape against Arsenal, but we simply had the wrong attitude,” said Gattuso at yesterday’s press conference. “We had prepared a different approach, but got the first half completely wrong and left them far too many spaces. Arsenal have the quality to put the ball where they want if you give them time and space.
“We are not going to London for a walk in the park. We are representing a glorious jersey and want to see what happens next.”
Not since 2009-10 have the Gunners made the last eight of a European competition. A victory tonight and a favourable draw in the next round might have some at the Emirates starting to believe again.