Mikel Arteta's Arsenal take on Wolves looking to end five-year Champions League exile

Rearranged Premier League clash at the Emirates a battle between two teams aiming for place on European football's biggest stage

Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta reacts during the English Premier League match between Arsenal and Brentford at the Emirates Stadium on February 19, 2022. EPA
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Arsenal competed in the Champions League for 19 consecutive seasons from 1998. Mikel Arteta played in it for Paris Saint-Germain, Rangers and the Gunners and coached in it alongside Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

But the fifth anniversary of Arsenal’s last game among the European elite, a 5-1 home defeat to Bayern Munich, falls next month.

In a week when Manchester United and Chelsea are in Champions League action, Arsenal are instead playing a rearranged Premier League match. If the mighty have fallen, they can at least be aspirational. Thursday’s meeting with Wolves is a contest between teams with legitimate hopes of playing on the major European stage.

Wolves 0 Arsenal 1 - player ratings

For Arteta, exile has made him miss the Champions League. “I do a lot because as a football player I’ve experienced it and it’s one the best feelings you can have to be surrounded by opponents that are the best in the world,” he said. “It brings the club into a different dimension. For the club this is where we want to play and this has to be the aim to be every year playing among the best teams in the world.”

Arteta’s youthful side can look outsiders in the five-way fight for fourth.

“It will be a bit of a rollercoaster,” said the Spaniard, who accepts their journey is not complete. “I am happy with the direction we are taking,” he said. “I am not happy with where we are.”

PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE

1 Man City  26  20 3 3 63 17  63 

2 Liverpool  25 17 6 2 64 20  57 

3 Chelsea  25 14 8 3 49 18  50 

4 Man Utd  26 13 7 6 44 34  46 

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5 West Ham  26 12 6 8 45 34  42 

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6 Arsenal  23 13 3 7 36 26  42 

7 Wolves  24 12 4 8 23 18  40 

8 Tottenham  23 12 4 8 31 31  39  

Yet arrange the Premier League table on points per game and Arsenal, who have three matches in hand on United and West Ham, are fourth. If rearranged fixtures could prove their trump card, they also look laced with difficulty. They have to find a new date to face Tottenham and Arteta believes a Wolves team with the division’s joint second best defensive record are genuine contenders for fourth.

“They look like it,” he said. “The way they are competing and playing is remarkable. Their defensive performance has been superb.”

Wolves beat Arsenal home and away last season but Arteta’s men have already triumphed at Molineux this month in perhaps the finest result of their campaign. It was all the more impressive as they finished with 10 men after Gabriel Martinelli was sent off for collecting two cautions in the same passage of play.

The young Brazilian is available after suspension again today but Emile Smith Rowe replaced him and scored against Brentford.

It was the Englishman’s ninth league goal of the season, putting him among the division’s top scorers. It feels more remarkable as, until he scored against Spurs in September, his Premier League career amounted to 27 appearances and just two goals.

But Arteta is not surprised by his prolific streak. “The numbers should be looking something like this and that's not a coincidence,” he said. “He's practising every day, he is working, he has willingness to do it because he knows he has the qualities and the capacity to do it.”

That capacity has been invaluable. With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang gone, Arsenal’s remaining specialist strikers have only scored three league goals this season. But Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have chipped in with 16 between them and nine of their last 11 wins have featured a goal by one or both. The next generation have propelled Arsenal into contention.

Arteta may have provided the environment for a talent to kick on. “It's in his nature, he needs to feel that confidence and that trust around the coaching staff that we are the right people to guide him and to take him to the next level,” Arteta explained.

In the process, Smith Rowe may take them back to the level they and Arteta used to enjoy.

Updated: February 24, 2022, 7:15 AM
PREMIER LEAGUE TABLE

1 Man City  26  20 3 3 63 17  63 

2 Liverpool  25 17 6 2 64 20  57 

3 Chelsea  25 14 8 3 49 18  50 

4 Man Utd  26 13 7 6 44 34  46 

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5 West Ham  26 12 6 8 45 34  42 

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6 Arsenal  23 13 3 7 36 26  42 

7 Wolves  24 12 4 8 23 18  40 

8 Tottenham  23 12 4 8 31 31  39