Arsenal Europa League Preview: A Look at Benfica
By Rob Worthington (Senior Writer)
Once again, Arsenal head into the Europa League knockout stages knowing that the competition holds additional importance. For the second consecutive season, at the round of 32, Europa League glory represents the Gunners' most realistic route to Champions League qualification.
This evening, Arsenal take on Benfica for their 'away' leg in Rome. The Portuguese giants are likely illustrative of the London outfit's toughest UEL Round of 32 opponents to date. They have numerous well respected players at their service and sit in fourth place in Liga NOS.
Both offensively and defensively, Benfica possess some highly regarded footballers. In attack, Everton Soares, a Brazillian once linked with Arsenal, and Haris Seferovic, Benfica's top goalscorer, hold considerable threat. Rafa Silva and Pizzi are a further two high profile players who ply their trade for the Lisbon side.
In defence, Benfica are equally well prepared. Alejandro Grimaldo, a man who has also been linked with a move to England in the past, is viewed by many as one of Europe's best left-backs. In addition, former Premier League verterans Jan Vertonghen and Nicolas Otamendi bring a degree of security to the centre of Benfica's backline.
Due to the plethora of talent available to them, it has surprised many in Portugal that Benfica sit in fourth position, 13 points behind league leaders Sporting. The fact they finished second in their Europa League group, 2 points shy of Steven Gerrard's Rangers, was also rather bemusing.
The Portuguese club come into tonight's game off the back of some inconsistent form, picking up just 6 points from from their last 5 league matches. In said period, they've scored just 5 goals and picked up maximum points only once. However, they have been defensively sound, conceding just 5 goals since the turn of the year.
Overall, Benfica have performed below expectations this year. The club are known as Sporting and Porto's fiercest competitors in Portugal but they appear to have let themselves down this season. Similarly to Arsenal, they may be looking at the Europa League as a potential SOS competition.
Benfica's form so far this campaign insinuates Arsenal really should be winning this tie, but the obvious talent in their ranks means Mikel Arteta can't underestimate the threat Benfica may pose. Expect some competitive round of 32 action between Arsenal and Benfica tonight.