Arteta keen to put loss aside for 'final'

Up coming Benfica match key to Europa League progress as Gunners gun for top tier

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling wheels away in celebration after outjumping his Arsenal markers to score the game's only goal. The win puts City 10 points ahead of Manchester United and Leicester at the top of the Premier League.
Manchester City's Raheem Sterling wheels away in celebration after outjumping his Arsenal markers to score the game's only goal. The win puts City 10 points ahead of Manchester United and Leicester at the top of the Premier League.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON • Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has described Thursday's Europa League last-32 second-leg clash against Benfica as a "final" after Sunday's 1-0 home defeat by Manchester City further dented their hopes of a top-four finish in the Premier League.

Raheem Sterling's goal after 75 seconds condemned Arsenal to their third defeat in four games and left them in 10th with 34 points, 11 points adrift of fourth-placed West Ham.

If Arsenal do miss out on a top-four spot, they can qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League and Arteta said the competition has taken on added significance, with their tie against Portuguese club Benfica finely poised after a 1-1 draw in the first leg.

"The Europa League's always been really important but obviously every defeat now in the league will put us in a difficult position," he said.

"We have a final on Thursday because we want to continue in the competition. We have to sleep, eat and we won't have time to train, then we fly to Greece."

The Spaniard said he would make several changes to the side after a draining contest against City, the Premier League leaders with a 10-point lead over nearest rivals Manchester United and Leicester City (both on 49 points).

Arsenal had 45 per cent of the ball at the Emirates and registered just one shot on target.

And the gulf in standards between the two clubs continues to grow.

City have won all of their last eight meetings, scoring 19 and conceding twice. They have yet to let in a goal in over seven hours.

More recently, in this calendar year, City have more points (33) than Arsenal, champions Liverpool and Tottenham combined (31).

There was more good news for Pep Guardiola on Sunday, when he was able to welcome back Kevin de Bruyne to his starting line-up.

Last season's PFA Player of the Year missed eight games but City still won them all.

In a season defined by fixture congestion and an injury pile-up that has decimated Liverpool's title defence, City's strength in depth has become all the more important.

City's record goalscorer Sergio Aguero has not played since Jan 3 due to a combination of injuries and Covid-19 but is edging closer to a return.

But Guardiola knows it will be difficult to keep extending their unbeaten run, now a streak of 18 matches.

"The record will be broken one day, we will lose games," said the Spaniard, whose five changes did not stop City from becoming the first top-flight team to win their opening 11 league matches in a calendar year.

"I'm surprised and impressed and so when everyone is suffering in this world, all the teams in the league are dropping points, we were consistent over the past two months."

City's defence has been the bedrock of their success. They now have 15 clean sheets in the top-flight this season, the most by a team after 25 games of a Premier League campaign since 2008-09, when Manchester United had 19 and Chelsea 15.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Arteta keen to put loss aside for 'final''. Subscribe