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Arsenal are eight points off fourth in the Premier League. Their embarrassment away at Nottingham Forest in January means they are out of the FA Cup. Despite a woeful team performance on Thursday night, the Gunners are in the last 16 of the Europa League.
A tie with AC Milan awaits. The sleeping Italian giants have staged a resurgence of sorts under club icon Gennaro Gattuso, losing just twice in their last 11 Serie A matches and cruising past Ludogorets over two legs.
Hearing Milan’s name pulled out against your team at the draw is frightening. Their reputation has hard-wired that reaction into football fans across the world. This great club are not a prospect to be feared at the moment, however. Milan have not even played in the Champions League since 2014, and have not finished higher than sixth in Serie A since 2012/13.
Although of little relevance to anyone other than social media managers, Arsenal’s last home knockout win in Europe was against Milan. The Gunners did still lose the tie on aggregate, mind.
Arsenal are the favourites to overcome Gattuso’s side. That does count on Arsene Wenger naming something resembling his strongest XI, though, which we will only find out closer to the fixture.
Thus far, Wenger has used the Europa League as a testing ground for squad players and youngsters. Mesut Ozil has made just one appearance, Granit Xhaka has played only 45 minutes – the second half against Ostersunds – and Aaron Ramsey has not been seen at all.
After the Carabao Cup final this weekend, the Europa League is all Arsenal have to play for. Not only as a potential second trophy, but also as their last-chance route into the Champions League for 2018/19.
This is an immensely strong Europa League, thanks to – amongst other things – the rejig of Champions League seeding. Even so, Arsenal with their best team would be expected to beat the majority of the field. Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid, who both have other distractions, are the two toughest opponents left in the competition.
Wenger’s European record is underwhelming. Successive last 16 Champions League exits made the strife to finish in the top four seem increasingly pointless. Being forced into the Europa League this season could easily have been interpreted as a blessing in disguise. After 27 Premier League matches, there is nothing to hide how important the Europa League is to Arsenal’s campaign.
Win the competition and – as Jose Mourinho proved last year – a poor league season can be glossed over. Lifting the trophy in Lyon would not only secure a place in next season’s Champions League, but finally tick the Europe box for Wenger.
English clubs have wrongly treated the Europa League as an inconvenience. Chelsea in 2013 and Manchester United last season showed signs that the approach is changing.
Arsenal should follow that lead. The probability of Arsenal winning the Europa League is greater than finishing in the top four, and Wenger should be reminded of that when he decides how to allocate minutes for his star players.
Written by Sam Cox
Follow Sam on Twitter @SamRCox_
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