The Europa League quarterfinal draw has been reasonably kind to Arsenal. Although they face a potentially tricky second leg in Russia against CSKA Moscow, with all the travel and associated disruption that a trip to European football’s “far east” entails, at least they did not draw the tournament favourites, Atletico Madrid. And they will hope that that remains the case until the final.
Arsenal Want to Avoid Atletico
Arsenal’s 5-1 aggregate win over AC Milan means they are in the last eight of a European competition for the first time in nearly a decade, since they beat Porto by a similarly large score (6-2 on aggregate) to reach the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2009-10. Since then, however, they have been stuck in the most vicious of cycles. Champions League qualification followed by reaching the knockout stages before being thrashed by one of Europe’s big beasts, such as Barcelona or Bayern.
They did not even qualify for the Champions League this time around. However, for all its other failings, the Europa League has at least represented a change of scene for Arsenal. It has also, given their lamentable away form in the League, been the source of nearly all away wins. This includes, most notably, the 2-0 win in Milan.
A Kind Draw
The Europa League has also been kind to Arsenal in that several other big clubs crashed out in the round of 16 (in effect, “doing an Arsenal”). Borussia Dortmund, Lazio, Zenit St Petersburg and Athletic Bilbao all surprisingly lost their two-leg ties. And even in the last eight, two other potential winners – Marseilles and RB Leipzig – have been drawn against each other, meaning only one can make the semi-finals.
All of this is to ignore the proverbial “elephant” in the room, or more precisely the elephant in the draw. That is Atletico Madrid, twice Champions League finalists in the last five seasons (in 2014 and 2016) and twice winners of the Europa League in the last decade (in 2010 and 2012). Their uncharacteristically poor displays in the group stage of this season’s Champions League, finishing third in their group behind Roma and Chelsea, meant that they dropped down into the Europa League. Arsenal themselves did the same in 1999-2000. That season, they went on to reach the final of the UEFA Cup (the Europa League’s predecessor).
Atletico’s appalling autumnal performances, which included twice drawing with group minnows Qarabağ, must in part have been down to the absence of Diego Costa. Costa had actually returned to Atletico from Chelsea last summer. However, he was unable to play for them again until January, due to a transfer ban. The ban had been imposed upon Atletico because of previous transfer irregularities. In his absence, Atletico struggled to adapt to their new ground, the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, which lacked the intimacy and sheer hostility of their old home, the Estadio Vicente Calderón. Rather like the London Stadium lacks everything that made Upton Park such an intimidating place to play.
Diego Costa is Back
Now, however, all that has changed. Costa is back as Atleti’s striker again, which should be enough to strike fear into the hearts of Arsenal fans. Exactly like Didier Drogba before him, Costa, a big, fast, traditional centre-forward, terrorised Arsenal’s defence while he was in England. There is every chance that he will do so again if the teams meet in the Europa League. When one bears in mind that he is now supported up front by Antoine Griezmann, with Kevin Gameiro and the veteran Fernando Torres on the bench, it is arguable that Atletico have the finest collection of strikers of any club side in the world. Arsenal do not have the best defence in the world. Which is why any confrontation between the two is dreaded by Gooners and any neutral observers of Arsenal.
Consequently, Arsenal will hope to avoid Atletico all the way to the final. Over a two-legged tie, it is doubtful whether they could hold out for long against Costa, Griezmann et al. However, in a one-off final they would only have to hold them at bay for a maximum of 120 minutes. In addition, the Europa League final is being played in Lyon this season. Consider the fact of Arsène Wenger‘s nationality as well as his historical penchant for bringing French talent to North London. From Vieira to Petit and Koscielny to Lacazette, Arsenal has had a distinctly Frankish flavour since 1996. The Gunners would surely enjoy the bulk of any supposedly neutral French support.
Time to Prepare
All of that is for the future. For now, Arsenal must enjoy their long lay-off for the rest of March and regroup for their two legs against CSKA. And if they win that tie, they will be holding their breath in the semi-final draw. The goal is to avoid Atleti and, above all, Diego Costa.
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