Arsene wenger insists winning the Europa League is an opportunity his under-fire Arsenal side have to take.
The Gunners face AC Milan at the San Siro on Thursday night in the opening leg of their last-16 clash.
The north London giants head into the game having lost their last four games in all competitions, including their Carabao Cup final defeat at the hands of Manchester City.
That run has also left them 13 points adrift of the Premier League top four as supporters have started to turn on wenger once again.
The slump in Premier League form now means winning the Europa League, as Manchester United did last season, is the clearest path to returning to European football’s top table.
Wenger has called on his players to step up and do just that as they look to stop their season petering out with two months of the campaign remaining.
“It makes me think about last year,” Wenger replied when asked if having a trophy to play for was similar to last season’s run to a third FA Cup success in four years.
“Last year we won the FA Cup, we made 75 points and missed out of the Champions League by one point.
“Seventy-five points is still a very good score what we will not reach this season. This is an opportunity we have to take, yes, of course.
“It increases the pressure on it even more on this competition. At the moment, it is certainly difficult when you go through a patch like that but I believe as well it is a good opportunity to show you have the quality and the strengths.
“You can only show that when it is difficult. It is a good opportunity to show we can deal with that and as well, on the longer term, it will make the team even stronger.”
Milan sit seventh in Serie A but have turned a corner since Gennaro Gattuso took over in November and are unbeaten since December 23.
The former Milan midfielder is enjoying a fine start to life at the San Siro, so much so wenger – 28 years Gattuso’s senior – joked he could not offer the Italian any pointers at present.
“I don’t give him much advice,” he said. “He was a great player here and he’s doing very well at moment. I’m not doing well so I can get advice from him.”
Wenger also confirmed Hector Bellerin has not travelled due to a knee injury while Nacho Monreal’s back problem means he was also left in London.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who began his career at Milan, is cup-tied with fellow striker Alexandre Lacazette sidelined with a knee issue.
The Europa League is now a priority for Arsenal following another poor domestic campaign.
Here, here the main talking points ahead of the first leg of a huge last-16 clash.
WENGER NEEDS A SUCCESSFUL ITALIAN JOB
A beleaguered Wenger is now in a position where any negative result leads to increased calls for him to leave.
The 68-year-old would have heard his own supporters bellow “we want Wenger out” during Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Brighton – a fourth consecutive loss.
While the Frenchman has stressed all season that he wants to return to the Champions League by finishing in the top four, that now looks unlikely as they are 13 points adrift.
Therefore this competition takes on more importance, especially as the 3-0 Carabao Cup final defeat to Manchester City means this is also the only chance of silverware this season.
MEETING OF TWO SLEEPING GIANTS
While Arsenal’s issues are laid bare for all to see back home, AC Milan are not without their own troubles.
Vincenzo Montella was sacked in November following a poor start to the season with former club favourite Gennaro Gattuso promoted from the youth set-up to take his place.
The change in manager has yielded better results with Milan recording just three losses since Gattuso’s appointment.
The slow start, however, leaves the Rossoneri seventh in Serie A and facing a similar battle to Arsenal to re-establish themselves.
A CARE FOR DEFENCE
While Milan may also be struggling for a return to the top, Gattuso at least has them well-organised defensively. Since the turn of the year, Milan have only shipped three goals and have kept clean sheets in their last six games.
Compare that to Arsenal, who have conceded 25 goals during the same period and whose defenders looked bereft of confidence at Brighton this past weekend.
Add to that the absence of both first-choice full-backs through injury and the Premier League side will certainly need to improve in that department if they are to win this tie over the two legs.
STRIFE ON THE ROAD
It is not only Arsenal’s defenders who struggle when they leave the relatively safe confines of the Emirates Stadium. With just six away wins across all competitions this season, the form away from home is one of the most alarming aspects of Arsenal’s campaign.
Three of those victories came at BATE Borisov, Red Star Belgrade and Ostersund, not particularly difficult hunting grounds, and – having lost 4-0 the last time they faced AC Milan at the San Siro – not even history is on the side on Wenger and his players.
DANNY NEEDS TO DO WEL
With club-record signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cup-tied and unable to face the team where he began his career and fellow big-money recruit Alexandre Lacazette still nursing a knee problem, Wenger is likely to once again put his faith in England international Danny Welbeck.
The former Manchester United man failed to impress when he played as a striker in both legs of the previous round against Ostersund and has scored only once in his last 12 appearances for the Gunners.
He needs to address that to give Arsenal their best chance of leaving Italy with an away goal but – coming up against the likes of Leonardo Bonucci – it will certainly be a tough ask of the 27-year-old.
European football’s control, ethics and disciplinary body acknowledged the allegation was made in good faith by the 17-year-old but, after a number of extensive interviews of players and match officials, it came down to Brewster’s word against Spartak captain Leonid Mironov.
Mironov admitted swearing at the England Under-17 World Cup winner during the Russian club’s 2-0 defeat in the UEFA Youth League match at Prenton Park in December but denied using racist language.
Five players from each side plus the match officials were questioned about the incident but none could confirm hearing any discriminatory language.
“Following the opening of proceedings, UEFA appointed an ethics and disciplinary inspector to conduct a thorough independent investigation and gather potential evidence relating to the case,” a statement from UEFA read.
“Such an appointment is standard practice, given that allegations of racist behaviour are taken very seriously by UEFA and its disciplinary bodies in accordance with our zero-tolerance policy towards any kind of discrimination.
“The inspector took statements from five players from both teams, as well as from two match officials, who were in the vicinity of the alleged incident. None of these heard any discriminatory words.
“Leonid Mironov was also interviewed by the inspector and stated that he indeed swore at Rhian Brewster, but he unreservedly denied using any discriminatory language.
“After concluding his investigation, the inspector found no evidence to corroborate the allegations, which he believed were made in complete good faith by the Liverpool player Rhian Brewster.
“Therefore, the UEFA control, ethics and disciplinary body, following the recommendation of the inspector, established that there was no evidence that would legally support sanctioning the FC Spartak Moskva youth player Leonid Mironov and thus decided to close the disciplinary proceedings.”
Provided by Press Association Sport