Bernd Leno and Mikel Arteta stress importance of beating Slavia Prague to save Arsenal's season

'When you think about the future without Arsenal in European competition it doesn’t feel right'

Bernd Leno was contemplating the prospect of Arsenal’s first season without any continental competition since 1995/96. “Our job is to make sure that doesn’t come true because Arsenal belongs to Europe,” the goalkeeper said. “That’s our target. When you think about the future without Arsenal in European competition it doesn’t feel right.”

Arsenal may not be defined by Europe in the same way that Liverpool are, but they have tended to be constants in it. They were Cup Winners’ Cup winners in 1994, finalists in 1995 and sat out European football the following season. Since then, they have been ever-presents, competing in the knockout stages in 18 consecutive years.

That run threatens to come to an ignominious end. Arsenal are ninth in the Premier League. Slavia Prague’s injury-time equaliser last week gives them an away goal in their Europa League quarter-final. Slavia have already overcome Leicester City and Rangers. “We’re going to have a real battle,” Mikel Arteta admitted. “They've knocked out some big teams along the way and fully deserve to be where they are. They showed in the first leg against us that they never give up. This can put us in a position to go into the semi-final of a European competition. This is exactly where this club has to be.”

Indeed, Arsene Wenger’s last season featured a Europa League semi-final, Unai Emery’s only full campaign a final. Neither could be deemed a success. Elimination now would reflect decline and render this season a complete failure. A campaign that began amid such optimism, following the FA Cup win and a series of auspicious victories that showed Arteta’s precocity, might end up as arguably Arsenal’s worst since 1975/76. Every subsequent season has contained at least a top-eight finish or a semi-final.

Arsenal’s young players have nevertheless offered some encouragement and there is a futuristic feel to Arteta, the prospect of better days. “Mikel does a great job and the team are fighting for him,” Leno said.

Reaching the last four, where they would face either Dinamo Zagreb or Villarreal, could feel tangible proof of progress, but Arteta is conscious that actions speak louder than words. “Tangible is the right word and the only tangible thing is results,” he said. “Whether you're doing a good job or not, to judge it externally is only going to be judged with results.”

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Martin Odegaard will be assessed to see if they are available. The captain was the talisman of their last triumphant cup run, with braces in the FA Cup semi-final and final. While inconsistent, Arteta’s Arsenal have shown an ability to beat elite teams. “We've shown that in big games, big players have to step in and create the magic moments and you need that,” he said.

Yet the calibre of Arsenal’s fitness doubts – one a £60 million forward on £300,000 a week, the other borrowed from Real Madrid – underlines the difference in resources with Slavia. It was Arsenal who spent £50 million on Thomas Partey last year, not the Czech side.

They have nevertheless required some leftfield thinking. While they welcomed the news that Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are fit, Granit Xhaka may again be required to stand in as a left-back as Arteta looks to find an alternative to the injured Kieran Tierney. He has had to be resourceful in other respects, loaning both Odegaard and Dani Ceballos from Real. Arteta suggested he would be keen to keep both but their future will be determined in the summer. Arsenal cannot be sure of their budget until then.

“With the financial position we've been in we had to find different ways to recruit good players to the club,” Arteta said. “In both cases I'm really happy with both of them and it needs to be decided at the end of the season.”

Having European football would give them a greater budget and make either deal more affordable. If Arsenal have to plan for different scenarios, Arteta claimed he has not considered the worst-case one: that they are exiled from Europe next year. He said: “I don't want to put it in my mind or transmit it to any of the players or anybody at the club.”

Updated: April 14, 2021 03:24 PM

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