Arsenal return to Europa League action with a trip to Greece, taking on Olympiakos at the Karaiskakis Stadium for the 1st leg of their last-32 tie. Mikel Arteta, of course, will oversee his first game on the continental scene.
The Gunners go into this match on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run across all competitions since the turn of the year. Even though half ended in draws, the Gunners will still be in high-spirits following their 4-0 second half razing of Newcastle United in a league encounter this past Sunday.
However, Arteta does not shy away from saying the players still have a long way to go to meet his expectations, while also recognising that they’re moving in the right direction. The progress they have made is something we can all be proud of because it implies that the Spaniards message is filtering through.
We have reached this ’round of 32′ as group F winners, however, with a mixed bag of results. After winning the opening three group games, we went winless in each of their last three (D2, L1). So no doubt Arteta will be hoping we hit some consistency to continue the progression as he targets success in the Cup competitions.
Meanwhile, Olympiakos play their first game in this season’s Europa, after being bumped down from the Champions League. They come into this match on the back of a comfortable 4-0 win themselves this past weekend on the domestic front and will be full of confidence.
Pedro Martins’ side is on a great run of form at the moment, in fact the last time they lost a match was on the 26th November against Tottenham in the CL. They are unbeaten after 24 matches in the Greek Super League (W18, D6); boasting a formidable goalscoring record of 50 league goals with only nine in reply.
They lead PAOK by two points and play them this coming weekend. So while that match will likely take priority with them targeting domestic success, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking they won’t try advance to the next round of the Europa at our expense. Arteta made no bones about seeing them as tough opponents:
“Papa [Sokratis] has made us even more aware of that, if we had any doubts… He knows everything about Olympiacos, about the country, about the type of fans that we are going to find here.
“I’ve been very aware from the games that I’ve watched about them and their passion, their quality and the atmosphere that we are going to have to be playing in tomorrow. So yes, it’s a difficult trip away from home and we’re going to expect a tough game and we’ve prepared for the game knowing that it’s going to be a difficult challenge.”
Of the notable absentees from the travelling party are Lucas Torreira, who misses out through illness, and Mesut Özil, him and his wife are expecting their first child – congratulations to Mr and Mrs Özil.
With the Europa providing an alternative route into next season’s Champions League Arteta could have a selection dilemma – does he rotate or pick the strongest XI from those available?
There have been some impressive performance of late though and some on the fringes that have really put their hands up. So whomever gets selected we can be sure deserves it.
Having ended his goal drought on Sunday, Alexandre Lacazette is likely to lead the attack with Eddie Nketiah dropping to the bench.
Mattéo Guendouzi made the flight and could come in the side with Dani Ceballos, who excelled on his return, likely to retain his place with Özil at home.
At the back Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Sead Kolasinac are all in line for recalls, with new signings Pablo Mari also available for selection, while Arteta expect Cédric Soares to step up his recovery in the coming days.
The Gunners are favourites to make it through over two legs. However, with home advantage the Greeks will be tough to beat and if we make more than a few changes to the lineup we could find ourselves in for a long night.
Be that as it may, we can expect a hard-fought and very entertaining game with both sides giving it their all. COYG!