Arsenal resume their UEFA Europa League campaign on Thursday as they welcome Slavia Prague in the first leg of the quarter-final clash.
Tagged as one of the favourites to lift the UEFA Europa League title this year, Arsenal will be hoping to right the wrongs of last season when they take on Slavia Prague on Thursday. This vital first-leg quarter-final encounter at the Emirates could be a critical game for the Gunners, knowing they simply cannot afford the opposition to sneak an away goal heading into the reverse fixture.
Europa League itself has already become sort of the main objective for Arsenal this season as their hopes of finishing inside the top four in the Premier League continue to dwindle. They most recently fell to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Liverpool and have won just one of their last four league matches, which has seen them dawdle in mid-table.
The Gunners were also defeated in their second leg Round of 16 tie against Olympiacos, although they were the only side in the group stages to secure a 100% winning record.
Slavia Prague, in contrast, have enjoyed an almost faultless season on the domestic front, currently having a 14-point lead at the top of the league table. They are also undefeated in their 25 matches so far and despite two defeats in the Europa League group stage, it has ultimately been a valiant effort from the Czech giants.
Incidentally, Slavia faced a British team in the last round, having no problems beating a Steven Gerrard-led Rangers side. Things could get much trickier against an Arsenal team who are determined to win the Europa League title this season. And here, at The Hard Tackle, we will take a look at both these teams ahead of this crucial first-leg encounter at the Emirates.
Team News & Tactics
Mikel Arteta has been dealt with big blows this month, with Kieran Tierney picking up an injury against Liverpool. He has been ruled out for at least a month while David Luiz, too, remains out. Martin Odegaard, on the other hand, is a doubt after experiencing discomfort in his right ankle.
On the bright side of things, though, both Bukayo Saka and Granit Xhaka are available for selection, with the former likely to slot into the creative unit alongside Emile Smith Rowe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, just behind the main striker in Alexandre Lacazette.
Xhaka’s absence, meanwhile, saw Arsenal struggle to find stability in the middle of the park against Liverpool. His return, therefore, could help the Gunners appear more composed in possession as the Swiss international hopes to renew his partnership alongside Thomas Partey at the base of the 4-2-3-1.
Tactically, Arteta will face many challenges, including a deep defensive line from the opposition. The aforementioned 4-2-3-1 could help in offering the numbers forward in attack, but with Cedric Soares likely to deputise for the injured Tierney at left-back, it could leave them vulnerable in a wide defensive position.
As such, Arsenal’s fortunes in this important home tie could depend on the form of central defenders in Gabriel Magalhaes and Pablo Mari. Both of them offer good ball progression, although Gabriel had a day to forget against Liverpool and will be low on confidence heading into this game.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Leno; Bellerin, Gabriel, Mari, Cedric; Xhaka, Partey; Saka, Smith Rowe, Aubameyang; Lacazette
Slavia Prague head coach Jindrich Trpisovsky primarily favours a 4-2-3-1 so his side will have no problems mirror Arsenal’s shape. The 45-year-old, though, is missing a host of key players heading into this game including experienced centre-back Ondrej Kudela, who is facing a one-match suspension.
🏃♂️ Our training at Emirates has begun.
— SK Slavia Prague EN (@slavia_eng) April 7, 2021
Fellow centre-backs in Simon Deli and David Hovorka are also missing, causing a bit of an injury crisis at the back for Slavia. It could ultimately force Trpisovsky to rely on the services of defensive midfielder Jakub Hromada at the heart of the four-man backline alongside David Zima.
Slavia, though, do have their usual full-backs in Alexander Bah and Jan Boril available, and they might play a vital role in offering the defensive aid for the centre-backs. In fact, we expect the four defenders to operate narrowly in an attempt to close out any spaces for Arsenal attackers to run in behind.
In Tomas Holes and Petr Sevcik, the Czech outfit also has a lot of resistance in holding midfield, with Holes, in particular, likely to be tasked with the responsibility of mopping up loose balls in the middle of the park. He is also playing a key role in shielding the back-four.
Meanwhile, in the attack, Slavia Prague do have a lot of firepower with Abdallah Sima and Peter Olayinka offering the pace needed to employ a counter-attacking setup this midweek.
These two will primarily look to offer the supply for Jan Kuchta upfront, although the presence of Nicolae Stanciu in the number ten role could be vital as the Romanian international hopes to pick out these runners with his through balls or long balls forward.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Vagner; Bah, Zima, Hromada, Boril; Holes, Sevcik; Sima, Stanciu, Olayinka; Kuchta
- The only previous matches between Arsenal and Slavia Prague in European competition were in the group stages of the 2007/08 Champions League – Arsenal won 7-0 at home before drawing 0-0 away.
- In all European competition, Arsenal are unbeaten against Czech opposition, keeping seven clean sheets in eight matches; they have scored 22 times and conceded only twice across these games.
- Slavia Prague will become the first team to face three British opponents (Leicester, Rangers and Arsenal) in the knockout rounds of a UEFA European competition since AC Milan in the 2006/07 Champions League (Celtic, Manchester United, Liverpool).
- This is Arsenal’s 16th quarter-final tie in a major European competition, progressing from nine of the previous 15, including each of the last two – versus CSKA Moscow in 2017/18 and Napoli in 2018/19, both in this competition.
- 15 different players have scored for Arsenal in the UEFA Europa League this season (own goals excluded), the most unique scorers of any side this season; the only side to have more different players score for them in a single Europa League campaign were Arsenal themselves in the 2017-18 campaign (16).
Player to Watch
It is difficult to pick out a crucial player in this encounter, but if there was ever one, it would be Cedric Soares of Arsenal. As mentioned earlier, the Portuguese international is likely to be entrusted with the job of deputising for the injured Tierney in an unnatural left-back position. He has played this role before earlier in the year, but with varied success.
Overall, though, Cedric has impressed Arteta since the turn of the year. His ability to sense danger combined with his technical ability and offensive prowess could thus prove to be an important asset for Arsenal in this fixture.
Slavia Prague will particularly need to be careful of Cedric’s forays down the flanks that often sees him whip in dangerous crosses into the box. And with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette lurking, it will be imperative for the away side to restrict his influence on the flanks this midweek.
Arsenal 2-1 Slavia Prague
Arsenal defence has shown very little discipline in recent weeks and could stumble once again this midweek, up against a Slavia side that does possess speedy wingers and effective goalscorers.
That said, the Gunners have a lot of quality going forward and will be boosted by the return of Granit Xhaka and Bukayo Saka that will offer both grace and stability. It should collectively combine well with the rest of the attacking setup as the hosts are indeed favourites to get the better of this depleted Slavia defence this week.