Arsène Wenger faces an all-too familiar task of picking his Arsenal players up from disappointment in the last 16 of the Champions League to lead them to a top-four place in the Premier League and a return to Europe’s top table. For four consecutive seasons Arsenal have exited the Champions League in the first knockout round, while maintaining their admirable consistency of qualifying for the following campaign’s competition. But, while their exit from this season’s Champions League has not yet been confirmed, Wednesday’s 3-1 home loss to Monaco represents a huge blow for Arsenal to overcome, both in the second leg next month and when they return to the Premier League against Everton on Sunday.
In the lost four years, Arsenal could at least take some solace from the fact that they had been beaten by European heavyweights in Barcelona, AC Milan and twice Bayern Munich. But a tie with Monaco represented the kindest draw they could have hoped for and a major opportunity to return to the Champions League’s latter stages. But those expectations were thrown into disarray by a calamitous performance at the Emirates Stadium in midweek, which has brought further scrutiny to a club and a manager that have just last season’s FA Cup to show for the last 10 seasons.
“We are a big club -- that means we are a club who interest many people and that gives us a stronger responsibility,” Wenger said at his press conference on Friday. “Of course when you come out from a disappointing game like Wednesday night, you don’t expect people to applaud. It’s absolutely normal that we get criticized.
“What is hurting is the defeat more than the criticism. I do not say I’m immune to it. I love to win and when I don’t win, I’m hurt of course.
Arsenal had actually been on a good run of form going into Wednesday’s encounter. Eight wins from their last nine matches in all competitions had helped Arsenal to move up to third place in the Premier League. And Wenger is understandably eager for his side to immediately bounce back.
“For us what is important is to respond well,” he said. “We are on a strong run in the Premier League. We have to respond to that disappointment in a strong way on Sunday afternoon, that’s all we can do.”
Wenger has confirmed that he will make changes to his lineup for Sunday. Having been two of the more obvious culprits for the Monaco loss, Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud might find their places in the side under threat. Jack Wilshere won’t be one of those coming into the team, however, with the midfielder, who has been out since November, undergoing a fresh procedure on his ankle, although one Wenger insists will only keep rule him out for a matter of days.
Arsenal’s defeat was just a part of a dreadful week in Europe for English clubs. Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham also suffered defeats, with the visitors to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday the only victors. Everton beat Young Boys of Berne to move through to the last 16 of the Europa League, where they have been drawn against Dynamo Kiev.
Given their struggles in the Premier League this season and the prize of a place in the Champions League that awaits the Europa League winners, it would be understandable were continental competition to take priority for Everton. Roberto Martinez’s side lie 12th in the Premier League and have long since lost any realistic hope of reaching the top four, although they will still have one eye over their shoulder to the relegation zone still just six points below. Whatever Everton’s ambitions for the remainder of the season, striker Romelu Lukaku is likely to be crucial to fulfilling them. After a disappointing start to the campaign following his club-record transfer from Chelsea, the 21-year-old struck five goals in the tie against Young Berne.
“He’s been very influential, not just in the last couple of weeks, I think since the turn of the year we’ve seen a player that is, from a physical point of view, in perfect condition,” Martinez said. “I don’t think at the beginning of the season he was in that state, because coming back from the World Cup probably delayed him reaching his best moment, physically. At the moment he’s been creating numerous chances to score. We want to see Romelu fully fit and being able to have that effect on the team from now to the end of the season.”
Prediction: Arsenal’s defeat to Monaco contained too familiar failings from Wenger’s men, only adding to the sense of frustration. Those problems have been exposed against Everton in the recent past, notably in a 3-0 defeat at Goodison Park 11 months ago. Martinez’s nous could see Everton take advantage once again, particularly if the quick, strong Lukaku is on song. But Everton’s exertions on Thursday may prove their undoing and allow Arsenal to get a much-needed win.
Arsenal 2-1 Everton
Kickoff time: 9:05 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra