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Arteta’s attacking dilemma ahead of Arsenal’s most important game of the season (Benfica Match Preview)

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Arsenal travel to Rome’s Stadio Olimpico to face Benfica in the Europa League round of 32.

Match Preview

Arsenal resume their Europa League campaign on Thursday evening, when they travel to Rome for the first and away-leg of their round of 32 clash against Benfica.

Both sides come into the tie having gone through the group stages unbeaten, as well as being amongst the highest-scorers in the competition.

The Portuguese side finished runners up in group D, behind Steven Gerrard’s Rangers, whereas the Gunners cruised to the top of group B winning all six games in the process.

Despite the promising form the pair have shown in Europe, Arsenal and Benfica find themselves on the end of faltering league campaigns.

Jorge Jesus’s men currently sit in 4th in Primeira Liga, 13 points behind runaway leaders Sporting CP, meaning their title ambitions are all but over.

Mikel Arteta’s side got back to winning ways at the weekend, with captain and star man Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring a hat trick, in a 4-2 victory at the Emirates.

Regardless of Arsenal’s recent domestic revival, consecutive defeats at the hands of Wolves and Aston Vila looks to have halted any ambitions of finishing in the top 6.

The Gunners are currently in 10th, six points off a Europa League spot for next season, with their most difficult run of fixtures approaching.

In a six-game stretch that sees them play the likes of Manchester City, Leicester, Tottenham and Liverpool it raises the question about whether the Europa League will begin to take priority.

Arteta’s attacking dilemma

Not for the first time this season, Arteta finds himself with an attacking dilemma, however this time it couldn’t be more contrasting to earlier in the campaign.

Question marks were raised before the game about whether the front four of Smith Rowe, Saka, Ødegaard and Aubameyang had the right balance, but they answered empathically.

Arsenal blew Leeds away with a dazzling first-half display last time out and were 4-0 up within 48 minutes, producing some of the most fluid football we have seen all season.

The dynamic worked perfectly, with Ødegaard and Smith Rowe linking the play up, interchanging from the wings adding a sense of unpredictability to the attack.

Saka’s direct running with the ball caused havoc for the Leeds defence and also gave him the chance to cut inside and bring others into the game.

In turn it meant Aubameyang was afforded the opportunity to drift out-wide in order to pick up the ball, with one of the attackers making runs in behind to allow him to exploit the space, much like we saw for his first goal.

It was a display almost too good to warrant any changes, however for perhaps the first time in his reign we have multiple attackers who deserve to play.

Most importantly, it looks as if our star striker is back to his best, having scored his first Premier League hat trick to take his tally to five goals in his last two starts.

Having the 31-year-old firing on all cylinders from now until the end of the season could drastically change the outcome and his upturn in form couldn’t have come a more crucial time.

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For the first time under Arteta, he is getting a tune out of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe at the same time.

It seems as if it’s the first time since Arteta’s arrival that our £175 million pound trio are all in form at the same time, with all three putting in a case to start the game.

Our record singing, Pepe has seen his most consistent run in an Arsenal shirt to date with a clear improvement in not only his output in the final third scoring two goals in his last four starts, but his defensive contribution as well.

Arteta recognises this as he commented on the turn around in form in his latest press conference: “I’ve seen a lot of things, in his mentality, the way he approaches every training session, in his understanding of the game as well. It’s true that he has patches where he’s played more than at other times.”

Recently, Lacazette’s form has been reminiscent of his second season at the club with not only his hold up play improving significantly, but his eye for goal also.

Despite this, one of them will most likely miss out as Saka’s importance and contribution to the team from right-wing has been nothing short of sensational, meaning he is a guaranteed starter.

For all the problems Arteta could have, this is the one he would have hoped for and if Arsenal are going to make anything out of this season, he will need to rely on all three at different stages.

Team News

Arsenal team news: The Gunners will be without midfielder Thomas Partey for the first-leg, following another muscular injury against Aston Villa, but the Ghanaian continues to train individually ahead of a potentially return in the coming weeks.

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Kieran Tierney is back in full training, but Thomas Partey is set for further time on the sidelines.

Arsenal received a much needed boost with defender Kieran Tierney making his return to full first-team training this week, meaning he will be apart of the squad to face Benfica.

Benfica team news: Benfica find themselves with an ongoing crisis at full-back with both recognised right-backs Andre Almedia and Gilberto both struggling for fitness.

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Pizzi is expected to be back in the starting lineup for Benfica on Thursday night.

Experienced Brazilian defender Jardel is will also be missing for the hosts, however joint top scorer in the competiton Pizzi is expected to make his comeback.

Predicted Lineups

Arsenal’s possible lineup (4-2-3-1): Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Cedric, Ceballos, Xhaka, Pepe, Smith Rowe, Saka, Aubameyang

Benfica’s possible lineup: (4-4-2): Vlachodimos; Goncalves, Otamendi, Vertonghen, Grimaldo; Silva, Taarabt, Weigl, Pizzi; Nunez, Seferovic

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