20:05 GMT, Thursday 15th March, Emirates Stadium (London, England), BT Sport
Arsenal are a team who belie easy categorisation. Heading to the San Siro last Thursday, Arsene Wenger’s side had just lost four fixtures in a row – albeit with two of them coming against league leaders Manchester City. The other two, though, were against weaker opposition: Brighton away in the Premier League and, even less forgivable, Ostersund at home.
It was only inevitable, then, that Arsenal should come out on top in a 90 minutes of football in Milan which had them looking, if not returned to the sort of form that we have come to expect of an Arsene Wenger team, rejuvenated and possibly amongst the favourites for the Europa League.
The second-tier European cup is now the Frenchman’s best chance of returning his side into the Champions League and, whether or not he will be there to enjoy the rewards, it would represent a successful season for the manager. One has only to look at Jose Mourinho’s first season at Manchester United to see the effect a Europa League win can have on a struggling club.
Before their match against Arsenal last Thursday, AC Milan were on the opposite trajectory to their opponents. Unbeaten in 13 games in all competitions, there was no one who thought that the night would end with anything other than a Milan advantage going into the second leg.
In many respects, dropping out of the competition at this stage would hardly be disastrous for Gennaro Gattuso’s side. With a place in the Coppa Italia against Juventus already secured, Milan are also in with a chance of obtaining a place in the European spots in Serie A – an achievement which would represent an impressive season’s work for the former Italy international who inherited a spiralling club when he took over from Vincenzo Montella earlier in the season.
However, Arsenal were there for the taking, on the ropes and reeling, so Gattuso will be disappointed at the manner in which their likely Europa League exit occurred. Still, Arsenal are Arsenal and there are still 90 minutes of this tie remaining for the unthinkable to occur.
Last Time Out
Arsenal 3-0 Watford (Premier League)
Revivified by their trip to the continent, Arsenal made short shrift of Javi Gracia’s Watford who seem to be sleepwalking towards a midtable finish in the Premier League.
While nothing should be taken away from the Arsenal performance, the most memorable moment of the game came when Troy Deeney – he of ‘Arsenal need cojones‘ fame – promptly relinquished all claim on any cojones of his own when he saw his penalty saved by Petr Cech. To make the moment even more savoury, by denying Deeney, Cech helped himself to a 200th clean sheet in the Premier League.
By this point, though, Arsenal were already 2-0 up thanks to goals from Shkodran Mustafi and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Quarter of an hour after Deeney’s miss, Henrikh Mkhitaryan iced the proverbial cake with a finish from the edge of the box.
Genoa 0-1 AC Milan (Serie A)
Despite the scoreline, Genoa helped AC Milan into providing one of the most entertaining football matches of the Serie A weekend.
Showing little evidence of their shock result in the midweek, Milan peppered the Genoa goal with chances throughout the game and had the favour repaid by a Genoa side who have managed to avoid a relegation battle in the Italian league this season.
Just before halftime, Milan had the ball in the back of the net: Franck Kessie sliding in at the back post to fire the ball home. However, the referee adjudged there to have been an infringement so it didn’t stand.
With the game drawing on, it looked as though Genoa might hold on but, with 10 seconds on the clock after four minutes of extra time, Andre Silva managed to get his head onto a Suso cross and power the ball past Mattia Perin in the Genoa goal.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup-tied for Europa League fixtures, he’ll join Santi Cazorla and Alexandre Lacazette who are both ruled out with long-term injuries. Lacazette, though, has returned to basic training this week.
In addition to these certain absentees, Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi, Calum Chambers, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal have all suffered minor injuries in recent weeks and could be rested.
After a good performance in the San Siro, David Ospina – Arsenal’s ‘cup keeper – should be back between the sticks for Arsene Wenger’s side.
AC Milan Lineup
Although he may be disappointed with aggregate scoreline he is bringing with him to London, Gennaro Gattuso will not be disappointed with his options. Milan have a fully fit squad heading to the Emirates Stadium with the exception of Andrea Conti and defender Ignazio Abate.
Given that Patrick Cutrone made little impact against Arsenal last week and Andre Silva grabbed an equaliser, it could be the case the Silva gets the nod over the youngster.
Key Battle: Granit Xhaka (Arsenal) vs Franck Kessie (AC Milan)
Two players who impressed at their former clubs but have yet to win over the fans of their current sides, Granit Xhaka and Franck Kessie will do battle in midfield on Thursday.
The Swiss Xhaka moved to Arsenal in 2016 off the back of an impressive four-season stint at Bundesliga side, Borussia Monchengladbach.
Playing as a number 8 for the German side, he became known as a player with a wand of a left foot who could both pass and shoot in such a way that he contributed productively for Die Fohlen.
Since then, though, his reputation has been more of a holding midfielder with a penchant for going in dangerously in tackles. However fair or unfair this assessment is, much of this reputation seems to have sprung from the fact that Xhaka is being played in an unfamiliar position.
Franck Kessie, on the other hand, arrived at AC Milan on loan from Atalanta after his breakout season at the club helped them attain promotion last season.
While it would be unrepresentative to say that his season has been a disappointment, it is fair to say that the 21 year old has not lived up to his reputation quite yet in Milan.
Since the arrival of Gennaro Gattuso, Kessie has formed a part of a midfield partnership with Giacomo Bonaventura which has become central to everything that Gattuso is trying to do.
Despite being poor for the first leg, Kessie does have the ability to help his team overturn a 2-0 deficit on Thursday.
Can Arsenal avoid another Ostersund?
When Graham Potter’s Ostersunds FK turned up in North London for the Round of 32 second leg, Arsenal’s work was all but achieved. A 3-0 away win, three away goals – it looked as though progression was guaranteed.
After conceding a couple of early goals, Arsenal hearts will have been in Arsenal mouths. It was only when Sead Kolasinac pulled one back for the Gunners that things started to look a little safer for them.
Arsene Wenger will have this at the back of his mind. Call it what you will – a lack of mental steel, complacency, whatever – Arsenal need to show that they can control matches from the front. If they don’t on Thursday, they could find themselves dropping out of the Europa League.
How does Gattuso approach the game?
AC Milan are flying in the league. With nine games left to play, including a Milan derby against an Inter team who sit just above them in the table, the Rossoneri could be in a position to go into the closing stages of the season a mere three points off the Champions League spots in the Italian league.
In many respects, then, whilst a deep run in the Europa League might be nice for AC Milan fans, it is likely they would swap that for a chance to climb the Serie A table and find their way into the Champions League in what is almost certainly an easier route.
As a result, it will be interesting to see how Gattuso approaches the game: does he rest key players for the game against Chievo at the weekend? Or does he persist with his strongest side?
With Juventus coming up after Chievo, a midweek rest for his main men might be the best chance of pushing for the top four.
Prediction: Arsenal 2-0 AC Milan
Embarrassing as the away loss to Arsenal was, Gennaro Gattuso will approach this game pragmatically. Milan’s current form in the league is enough to convince him that the Europa League is not a priority and so it seems unlikely that the Rossoneri will overturn their 2-0 deficit.
For Arsene Wenger, there is very little to play for now but the Europa League. As a result, it is hard to see him letting this a lead with two away goals slip.
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