Who Needs the Top Four?

As Arsenal now sit eight points adrift of fourth spot in the Premier League, Gunners fans turn their attention to the Europa League, as a victorious tournament would deliver automatic Champions League qualification.

This year’s Europa League knockout stages have been labelled as the toughest since the tournament began. The Champions League dropouts feature Serie A leaders Napoli, Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and bookies’ favourites Atlético Madrid. Notable others include Olympique Lyon, who will be gunning for a Stade de Lyon final in their home city, and an exciting Lazio outfit, Serie A’s highest scorers this season.

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Ties to be played on February, excluding Crvena Zvezda vs CSKA (13st and 21st Feb). Image by Europa League via Twitter.

Arsenal will be expected to ease past their round of 32 opponents, Swedish minnows Östersund, yet it is crucial that manager Arsène Wenger takes them seriously. A 1-0 away loss to FC Köln in the group stages and the recent FA Cup humbling at the hands of Championship Nottingham Forest has seen the Frenchman questioned regarding his drastic rotation. In the latter, Wenger fielded a weakened starting 11 but the main critique was down to naming a bench without any big names to call on when needed.

Last year’s competition saw Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United lift the trophy after accepting that a top four spot was out of reach and making the decision to go all in for the Europa League. Arsenal are 5/1 in the football betting to replicate United’s triumphs and with such a high calibre of opponents awaiting in the forthcoming rounds, Wenger must look to rest key players in the league. As a trialled and tested method it will provide the Gunners with fresh legs for physically challenging two-legged fixtures against some of Europe’s best.

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan (pictured) will be hoping to get his hands on a consecutive Europa League trophy. Image by HenrikhMkh via Twitter.

A key element in Manchester United’s victorious campaign was the form of Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who contributed six goals in the tournament. The new Arsenal signing will be looking to replicate last season’s form, as will French poacher Alexandre Lacazette, who also hit six Europa League goals, helping former club Lyon to the semifinals. He looks set to be the main man in Europe as Arsenal’s club-record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be ineligible to feature. The £56 million Gabon international featured in Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League campaign and their presence in the Europa League means he is unable to play for Arsenal.

The North Londoners have the firepower and attacking flair to get past any defence in European football. But it’s at the other end of the pitch that their Europa League fate will be determined. After a 3-1 defeat against Swansea, Arsenal have conceded 34 league goals this season, more than Burnley, Leicester City and even Premier League newcomers Brighton. The most likely centre-back partnership of Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny will need to return to form quickly and remain injury-free before facing the likes of Antoine Greizmann and Dries Mertens, potentially.

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