As Arsenal return to European Football tonight, what can we realistically expect from the Gunners? Plus, will Cristiano Ronaldo make his Europa League debut at 37?

Arsenal are returning to European Football after a year’s absence off the back off a very good start in the league, despite their 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford on Sunday. The Gunners will face Linfield (Northern Ireland) and Hearts’ (Scotland) conquerors, FC Zurich, in their first match.

This will be their first away European match since the 2-1 defeat against eventual Europa League winners, Villarreal, on the 29th April 2021. The squad appears to have come so far since then so what can be expected of the Gunners and do they have it in them to win their first European trophy?

Why Arsenal should be confident?

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Arsenal have started the season really well (1st with 5 wins) and they have players that are in-form including Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Martinelli, Granit Xhaka and captain, Martin Odegaard

Reason 1: They are hungry

Not the kind of hunger that Marcus Rashford has worked so hard to combat (even if the forward tried to quash their hunger with his brace on Sunday) but the desire to prove their doubters wrong.

Arsenal have a point to prove after the capitulation that was the end of their season. Requiring a win to secure Champions League they proceeded to lose 3-0 to Tottenham and then 2-0 to Newcastle, gifting top four to their North London rivals. They will be desperate to prove those whose question whether they can perform when it matters and winning a European trophy would do just that.

Reason 2: They have young players who play without fear

The Gunners started last season with three straight losses but the fact they recovered so well can be attributed to their young players (Emile Smith-Rowe, Bukayo Saka, Eddie Nketiah etc) they are players who are full of belief in their own ability and are huge assets for the future but also the present Arsenal team.

Reason 3: Squad improvements

The last time Arsenal were in the Europa League their side was full of average players who were below the quality needed to succeed in this competition. For instance, they started Granit Xhaka at left-back (he has definitely improved but would be a sub-par option in that position), Pablo Mari, Rob Holding and Callum Chambers made up the back four.

Whilst these guys all seemed like popular guys in the Arsenal side (based on the ‘All or Nothing’ documentary) only Rob Holding has shown the form to really be considered as an option with Mari and Chambers being sold.

Arsenal, since then, have been the biggest Premier League spenders in two straight summers. They have brought in Aaron Ramsdale, Gabriel, Ben White, Nuno Taveras, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Albert Sami Lokonga, Martin Odegaard (made his loan permanent), Takehiro Tomiyasu, Fabio Vieira, Marquinhos (not from PSG), Matt Turner and Gabriel Jesus.

Whilst not all have been world beaters, Ramsdale has assured Arsenal defence alongside Gabriel and Ben White with Tomiyasu also an improvement on Bellerin and Chambers. Lokonga and Vieira seem to be ones for the future with Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka playing the out of the team.

Zinchenko’s versatility and winning experience has already been shown despite his early injury and Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Jesus have been two of the outstanding performers creating problems for defences and showing a real understanding of where each other wants to be.

Lets not forget William Saliba who has been a breath of fresh air since returning from Marseille and has even forced £50 million man, Ben White, to play right-back to accommodate the young French man.

The squad is much better and are all of a similar profile meaning they will grow and develop together which puts less pressure on Arsenal to deliver straight away. This is unlike the pressure of having a 37 year old Cristiano Ronaldo because he was signed by Manchester United to win trophies, Arsenal don’t currently have that same pressure.

Reason 4: Belief in Mikel Arteta

Arsenal have stuck with Mikel Arteta despite two eight place finishes and last year it almost culminated in the Champions League. There a re few things more difficult for players than playing for a manager who does not have the confidence of the board and could leave at any time.

He has been backed, like Thomas Tuchel but the Arsenal board have been patient with him allowing him time to implement his team rather than sacking him six games in after spending over £100 Million.

The players have seemed to benefit from Arteta’s experience of working with Pep Guardiola and the fact that Arteta is a winner is well-known. Keep in mind, Arsenal won the FA Cup in 2020 (despite finishing 8th in the league).

This gave him credit for the next season and his massive improvement last season has given the Arsenal board confidence that the club is in an upward trajectory.

Reason 5: No Villarreal!

In all seriousness, not having to face Unai Emery in the Europa League (as they are in the conference league) is a huge boost for every Europa League side. Emery led his side to the Champions League semi-finals, shocking Juventus in the last 16 and Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals before eventually losing to Liverpool despite levelling the tie at half-time in the second leg.

His European pedigree is remarkable winning four Europa Leagues and his side still contains most of its best players including Gerard Moreno, Yeremy Pino, Giovanni Lo Celso and Pau Torres. Arsenal have been lucky to avoid them but may hope Sevilla don’t drop to the Europa League because they also have an excellent record in the competition.

Reasons for Arsenal to be pessimisitc

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Reason 1: Bad runs of form

Arsenal were very inconsistent last season having runs of five straight wins before losing three straight. At the business end of the season it can be very difficult to grind out results and Arsenal have a habit of backing one poor result up with another.

Whether that is lack of experience of just the demoralising feeling of losing a winning streak but in the months of April and may they must be able to bounce back quickly from setbacks.

Reason 2: Sloppy goals conceded

Arsenal looked solid defensively against Crystal Palace and Bournemouth but have been indifferent in the other games. They had an embarrassing own goal against Leicester in their 4-2 win and Gabriel was caught napping by Mitrovic against Fulham.

They conceded straight from a corner against Aston Villa as no-one protected Aaron Ramsdale from being blocked off and no-one either covered the front post and they conceded far too soon after getting back into the game against Manchester United.

Doing this in Europe may be costly particularly as the knockout stages close in, so Arsenal will need to try and cut out these basic mistakes.

Reason 3: Injuries

Whilst this is something everyone has to deal with, Arsenal have already suffered multiple injuries, particularly to their midfield. They are without Emile Smith-Rowe, Mohammed Elneny, Reiss Nelson and Thomas Partey. Full-back Cedric Soares is also injured for the Zurich trip with Zinchenko recovering from an injury to be on the bench.

Arsenal’s squad suffered despite having less games last season (knocked out in FA Cup third round and no European football) they suffered towards the back of last season particularly at centre-back. With the additional fixtures this will put more pressure and minutes into the legs of the players, if they want to win the competition.

Thoughts on what Arsenal can achieve

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Arsenal are very capable of winning the Europa League with his why the pros outweigh the cons but it will not be easy and they will need to find the resolve that waned from them at the end of last season.

My expectation is that they will win the Europa League, barring major injuries to their key players or a European Superpower unexpectedly dropping into the Europa League from the Champions League (e.g. Liverpool).

As far as FC Zurich, they should win this game comfortably (although the same could have been said at Chelsea in Zagreb). I believe it will be 3-0 with Nketiah getting on the scoresheet at some point.

Evaluation of the line-up

Matt Turner (30) – Will be a interesting night to see whether he is capable of being Ramsdale’s understudy, the Europa League group stage games may be big in his fight for the number one jersey for the USA in this winter’s World Cup.

Takehiro Tomiyasu (18) – Has a fight for his place in the team as Ben White has been shifted out to his position, had a great start to life at Arsenal but injury curtailed his season, Europa League form could be important for his Premier League ambitions.

Rob Holding (16) – Has played two league games this season (being against Aston Villa and Fulham) both in which Arsenal failed to keep a clean sheet. Was sent off in the Champions League decider against Tottenham last season and will need to make it up to the fans. Still considered a fan favourite because of his humble background (signed from Bolton) but with William Saliba returning he will need to fight for minutes in this side.

Gabriel (6) – One of the stars of Arsenal’s start to the season but struggled against Manchester United, will be in this defence to provide some continuity and support for Turner. Likely that Arteta will rotate Saliba, White and Gabriel in this position (depending on the needs of the team.)

Marquinhos (27) – A huge game for the 19 year-old making his debut for Arsenal on the right wing. Definitely one for the future but may use the Europa League as a breakout competition, much like Marcus Rashford when he entered the Manchester United first team.

Sambi Lokonga (23) – One for the future in the midfield but looked out of place at Old Trafford, he could make this competition his own and regular football can only be good for the young Belgian.

Granit Xhaka (34) – The former captain has made a remarkable turnaround under Mikel Arteta. From being booed off the pitch at home in a game against Crystal Palace in 2019, to being one of the first names on the team sheet. After signing in 2016 it is crazy to think the Swiss international is still just 29 years old and will have a few good years for Arsenal left. Has been very impressive so far this season and has began to pick up more attacking areas to make an impact in the final third.

Kieran Tierney (3) – The Scottish full-back suffered badly last season with recurring problems with his knees after damaging knee cartilage in February 2021 against Wolves. The full-back is still in somewhat recovery and will see the arrival of Zinchenko has clear competition for him on this side. Arsenal would love for him to return to his pre-knee injury form.

Fabio Vieira (21) – I feel bad for the young Portuguese midfielder, having the name Vieira and playing for Arsenal as that is some name to fill. The former Porto midfielder made his debut against Manchester United on Sunday and will be relishing the opportunity to start the Europa League campaign strongly. One to look out for!

Gabriel Martinelli (11) – We all know his quality and he has shown it in abundance this season. He is already an FPL hero in my book and his three goals and all-aroud general play have impressed the Arsenal faithful. He is another to have suffered with injuries after bursting onto the scene a couple of seasons ago. While it looked like he was behind Saka and Smith-Rowe in the pecking order, he has started the season so well that he is preferred tonight.

Eddie Nketiah (14) – What has this guy got to do in order to catch a break. He has been incredibly patient at Arsenal, having a loan spell at Leeds United (where he had to sit on the bench behind Patrick Bamford) but took his chance last season with a brace against Chelsea in a huge game. Eddie finished the season with 5 goals in the league and 5 in the League cup but has been limited to just 76 minutes across the first six games. Having a competition where he can express himself is key and with his proven goal scoring record for the England under-21s he will be relishing the opportunity to bag some goals and put pressure on Gabriel Jesus’ starting berth.

Will Cristiano Ronaldo play in the Europa League?

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It has been a tough summer for Cristiano Ronaldo, seeing moves away from Old Trafford fall through and having short appearances off the bench but will h relish a return to European Football

Had you told me Cristiano Ronaldo would be in contention to start a Europa League game a few years ago i would not have believed you but knowing the poor running of Manchester United I may have seen it coming.

That being said the record goal scorer in the Champions League tried to move back to Europe’s elite competition but to no avail, with Chelsea appearing the closest target. Even then I expected more of an impact in the league but when Manchester United lost 4-0 to Brentford his time as a starter was up.

Erik Ten Hag decided to drop him and captain Harry Maguire for the Liverpool match and it proved dividends as the Red devils ran out 2-1 winners. He has not started since but the match against Real Sociedad allows for some redmeption.

Cristiano has scored 15 goals in his nine meetings with Real Sociedad, with nine wins and two hat-tricks and will look to extend that record tonight.

He may not be the same player as before but he still seem to turn up in big games last season including in wins against Tottenham and Arsenal.

Personally, for me he has to start as Ten Hag needs to incorporate him into the team somehow because he is too important, too experienced and being paid too much for the Dutchman to ‘Aubameyang him’ (that is to completely freeze him out of the club.)

Cristiano Ronaldo will start and I for one will not be surprised if he scores because as Rio Ferdinand would say “this is what he does”.

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