Napoli tie will be test of Arsenal’s Europa League credentials

Last season, it was Atletico Madrid. Arsenal were paired with the Spanish giants in the semi finals of the Europa League. Diego Simeone’s side were the first real test that the Gunners had faced in the competition and they stumbled, failing to make the final and secure a place in the following season’s Champions League. That might have been the moment Arsene Wenger was truly pushed out the exit door.

This season, with Wenger gone and Unai Emery at the helm, the litmus test has come a little earlier in the Europa League. Napoli will travel to North London this week to take on Arsenal with a place in the competition’s final four on the line. It’s arguably the toughest draw that the Gunners could have been handed.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Alexandre Lacazette

“We are being consistent a lot at the moment,” Emery explained ahead of the quarter final clash against the Italians. “This match is a big-level match, and the level we want to play. It’s a very big test for us in this competition. We want to play the best teams and Napoli now is one of the best teams, with the best players and also a very experienced coach.”

Indeed, Napoli are a quality side. In a more favourable Champions League group, they would have qualified for the top tier competition’s last 16. Even still, they managed to beat Liverpool, drawing against Paris Saint-Germain home and away. Napoli are an elite level side even if they are not competing at the elite level.

Under Maurizio Sarri, Napoli were the epitome of dynamic, exciting, forward-thinking football. Those qualities have been blunted somewhat since the exit of Sarri to Chelsea last summer, but Carlo Ancelotti has picked up where he left off, maintaining Napoli as a force both domestically and in Europe.

Arsenal will fancy their chances against Napoli. There’s a case to be made that the Gunners are the favourites to win this season’s Europa League. Atletico Madrid were, and still are, a better side than the Italian visitors to the Emirates Stadium this week.

But what happens over the two legs will provide an indication as to whether Arsenal are ready to win the Europa League, pulling up a seat at next season’s top table in the Champions League. Napoli, just like Atletico Madrid last season, are the litmus test for Arsenal in this competition.

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Is Eden Hazard the right man for Real Madrid?

Anyone who watched Chelsea’s comfortable 2-0 win over West Ham United on Monday evening surely drew one conclusion – Eden Hazard really wants a move to Real Madrid this summer. The Belgian has been the subject of much speculation linking him with a switch to the Spanish capital and against the Hammers at Stamford Bridge, he was in sparkling form.

Zinedine Zidane was surely watching. So certain are some outlets that Hazard will join Real Madrid at the end of the season they have even reported the exact fee, with Chelsea said to be demanding £100 for their prize asset. With just one year left on Hazard’s contract, that would appear to be market value.

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Do Real Madrid need Hazard, though? Zidane will lead an overhaul of the tired and creaking squad at the Santiago Bernabeu this summer, with outgoings expected along with incomings. Real Madrid never really replaced Cristiano Ronaldo and Hazard is seen by many as the natural successor to the Portuguese forward.

It’s certainly true that Hazard as the strength of personality to handle the pressure that comes with being a ‘Galactico.’ He has been building up to this moment his entire career and so it’s unsurprising that the Belgian has ramped up his performances for Chelsea just as speculation has come to a head.

But what about his positional use to Real Madrid? Hazard, by trade, plays on the left wing. That is, arguably, where Real Madrid are best equipped for the future, with Vinicius Junior the youthful face of the club after a breakthrough season. Zidane also has Marco Asensio in that position. So where would Hazard fit in?

Could he play on the right side? That’s Gareth Bale’s position right now, but the Welshman could be sold to make way for Hazard, so there could be a gap to fill there. But that would require Hazard to adapt his natural game. Are Real Madrid really going to pay £100 million for the Belgian only to turn him into a different player?

Zidane could feasibly use Hazard through the middle, behind Karim Benzema as the central striker. The Belgian has played there before in his career, but not always to great effect. So while Hazard might be destined to pitch up at Real Madrid this summer, it’s not yet clear where he will actually fit in.

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Arsenal’s away troubles hint at lingering Wenger-era weakness

Things were supposed to be different, and in many ways they are. Arsenal, with Unai Emery at the helm, are in a good position to finish in the Premier League’s top four, their objective at the start of the season. The Spaniard has revived some aspects of the North London club many believed to have died under Arsene Wenger.

One rather significant remnant of the Wenger era lingers, though. Just as was the case last season, the Gunners have struggled away from home of late, winning just one of their last 10 away games in the league. If there is one thing holding Arsenal back from achieving their targets, it is their dismal away record.

Chelsea 3-2 Arsenal

So how can they address this? Well, for starters they must look to take the initiative more often. Far too frequently, Emery’s side invite pressure on top of themselves when they have the capacity and ability to take control themselves. Arsenal, on their travels are too flimsy in the centre of midfield and defence. This was obvious in the recent away defeats to Everton and West Ham.

What’s more, Arsenal’s pressing game seems to lose its edge when they are away from the Emirates Stadium. At home, the Gunners tend to press from the front, yet on the road they sit back. Alexandre Lacazette against Everton, for instance, found himself in midfield for the majority of the match whenever the opposition had the ball. He should have been leading a high press from the front.

Mesut Ozil is another who could help improve Arsenal’s recent away record. The German can often be unfairly typecast as the sort of player who slacks off when it comes to the dirty side of the game. Recent displays against Manchester United and Rennes have gone against the grain of that perception, but away from home Ozil reverts to that damaging typecast. He is too passive.

The other issue Arsenal face is that individual errors are costing them. Those are much harder to legislate for, but Emery must attempt to instil the sort of confidence and self-assurance in his players that lead to these mistakes being avoided.

Arsenal currently occupy a place in the top four and stand a good chance of finishing there. Emery has undoubtedly made progress in his first season at the club, but old weaknesses remain. Ironing them out will be key to achieving long term success and there is no bigger kink than the troublesome away record.

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Ryan Fraser would be a shrewd summer addition for Arsenal

Only two players have made more assists in the Premier League this season than Ryan Fraser. Indeed, the Scottish midfielder has been a creator extraordinaire for Bournemouth over the 2018/19 campaign, notching no fewer than 10 assists in 30 games for the Cherries. Fraser sits deservedly in the top three of this season’s assists chart alongside Eden Hazard and Christian Eriksen.

It’s little wonder then that the Scotland international has, in recent weeks, been linked with a summer move away from the Vitality Stadium. Bournemouth have made themselves a permanent fixture in the Premier League of late, but many believe Fraser is ready for that next step in his career.

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Arsenal, who are reportedly keen on the 25-year-old, would represent that next step up. Fraser is, by trade, a wide player and the suggestion is that Unai Emery wants to add at least one such figure to his Gunners squad this summer. And with Arsenal unable to compete at the very top end of the transfer market Fraser would be an extremely shrewd addition.

Reports hint that Fraser could be available for as little as £25 million, making him one of the potential signings of the summer. The Scot would add some drive and energy through the midfield for the Gunners, something they will need following the departure of Aaron Ramsey to Juventus at the end of the season.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s very nice,” Fraser said when asked what it meant to him to be linked with a club of Arsenal’s stature. “It means you are are doing something right. They are a huge club, a massive club. When you see your name thrown around you always think to yourself that you are a Bournemouth player and you try to do well. I’m not going to lie, you do feel good, especially when it’s a massive club.”

Fraser might not be more than a squad option to Arsenal, but he would be a very good one. The Scot has already stepped up his game by moving to the south coast from Aberdeen as a youngster and his recent comments suggest he is ready to make another step up. Fraser wouldn’t be the most glamorous of signings, it’s unlikely that thousands of fans will turn up for his unveiling at the Emirates Stadium, but he would widen the range of options at Emery’s disposal.

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Malcom has earned his chance of more first team football at Barcelona

One night last summer a group of excited Roma fans assembled at the city’s airport, as they often do, to welcome a new signing. The only problem was that signing, Malcom, never arrived. In what became one of the stories of the summer transfer window, the Brazilian winger was poached by Barcelona, leaving Roma, and their fans, disappointed.

Conspiracy theories bounced around over why Barcelona, a team already well-stocked with world class wingers, had made a move for Malcom. Some claimed that the Catalans had deliberately sabotaged Roma’s efforts to sign the Brazilian after their embarrassing exit to the Serie A outfit in the quarter finals of the Champions League the season before.

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That seemed a little farfetched, but it was certainly true that Malcom arrived at Camp Nou without an obvious place in the team waiting for him. After all, Ousmane Dembele had nailed down the one vacant position in the Barcelona front three, with Philippe Coutinho also signed as the club’s most expensive ever player just a few months prior.

It was therefore unsurprising that Malcom barely featured over the first half of the season, having to make do with the odd cameo appearance late on off the bench. In fact, the Brazilian winger had to wait until November to be handed his first start for his new club. After that, he had to wait until late January for his second start.

Something has changed, though. Malcom is starting to make his mark at Barcelona. He is making the most of those late cameo appearances off the bench and with Dembele struggling through injury Ernesto Valvede has started to place his faith in the former Bordeaux player.

This was apparent in Barcelona’s trip to face Villarreal on Tuesday, a match that would ultimately finish 4-4 after a stunning fightback by the Catalans. With Lionel Messi rested from the start, the attacking onus was placed on Malcom. And he delivered, scoring once and assisting another in the opening 16 minutes.

Malcom has, in fact, played well almost every time he has come off the bench this season, it’s just that he is rarely given time to show what he can do. Now, the Brazilian seems to have earned the trust of Valverde and that could see him become a key figure for Barcelona between now and the end of the season.

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Does Danny Welbeck deserve a new contract at Arsenal?

Just as it seemed Danny Welbeck was starting to find his place in Unai Emery’s Arsenal team, disaster struck, just as it has so many times for the forward over the course of his career at the Emirates Stadium. It was during a Europa League game against Sporting Lisbon in November that Welbeck suffered an ankle injury that would effectively end his season before it had even got going.

Indeed, this was an all too familiar tale for Welbeck. Since arriving at Arsenal from Manchester United nearly five years ago, he has missed more games through injury than he has been available for. Even still, Welbeck has managed to make over 100 appearances for the Gunners, becoming something of a fans favourite, even if his lack of finishing instinct and cutting edge frustrates from time to time.

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At the time of his latest injury speculation was starting to build that Welbeck could be on his way out of Arsenal. That a good run of form could convince Crystal Palace, who were in the market for a striker in the January transfer window, into making a move for the England international. Now, however, the 28-year-old’s contract is up at the end of the season and his future is in doubt.

That was until recent reports claiming Arsenal could, if the terms were right, offer Welbeck a new contract. On the face of things, this wouldn’t be a wise move. Welbeck’s injury troubles make him unreliable. However, he brings something different to the table. He gives Arsenal an option they don’t otherwise have. He increases their attacking diversity.

Welbeck isn’t a conventional frontman. He isn’t one to lead the line on his own. Instead, he is a perfect foil for a central goalscorer. Look at the role he played at Manchester United, particularly in the 2012/13 season, when Sir Alex Ferguson used Welbeck as a supporting striker alongside Robin Van Persie. Or the role he played alongside Wayne Rooney for England. It’s an international level where Welbeck has often found his best form.

The 28-year-old is a master at creating space for others and so there’s logic to the notion that he could operate as part of a front three alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. While it would be foolish to pin too many hopes to Welbeck, it might be worthwhile keeping him around for the time being.

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Do Barcelona really need Matthijs de Ligt this summer?

Just when it looked like Barcelona were going to go through the January transfer window without making much of an impression, they dropped a rather significant announcement, confirming a move for Ajax and Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong.

The Dutch youngster won’t pitch up at Camp Nou until this summer, with Ajax still in the Champions League, making the competition’s quarter final after thumping Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, but nonetheless, it was a statement of intent from the Catalans. De Jong is a Barcelona sort of player and will be their next great central midfielder.

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Speculation continues to swirl, however, that Barca will swoop for another Ajax youngster this summer. Matthijs de Ligt has been hyped, along with de Jong, as a future Dutch superstar, becoming a key figure for both his club and for the Netherlands national team over the past 18 months or so.

De Ligt is, indeed, quite the talent. At just 19 years old, he is the best young defender in the European game right now and so it’s therefore unsurprising that the elite, including Barcelona, are circling. Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid have also been linked, but it’s the Catalans who seem to be leading the pursuit.

Do Barcelona really need de Ligt, though? There can be no denying the teenager’s quality. He will be the sport’s next great centre back, but Barca already have a defender willing and capable of bringing the ball out from the back in Gerard Pique. A backline with both de Ligt and Pique might be a little too adventurous.

What’s more, Barca have spent big on defenders in recent years. They have Samuel Umtiti, a much more natural partner for Pique, and Clement Lenglet, the French defender signed from Sevilla just last summer who has proven himself to be an adequate option for the Catalans. Do they really need de Ligt at this point?

The plan might be for the Ajax centre back to be the long term successor to Pique. That would at least make some sense, but Pique is arguably in the midst of his best ever season for Barcelona. At 32, he might be entering the twilight of his career, but Pique remains, arguably, the best in Europe in his position. If de Ligt is to one day replace him, he might be waiting a while.

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Luring Ander Herrera from Man Utd would be a huge coup for Arsenal

The battle for fourth place in the Premier League between Arsenal and Manchester United, with Chelsea seemingly losing ground on a weekly basis, will likely go all the way. There’s a lot on the line for the two teams, with so much emphasis placed on qualifying for next season’s Champions League. Arsenal could get one over United before the close of the campaign, though.

If recent reports are to be believed Arsenal could swoop to sign Manchester United’s Ander Herrera, whose contract at Old Trafford has only a few months left to run. The Spaniard’s future is uncertain, along with a number of other soon-to-be out of contract players, and this has raised the prospect of a potential move to the Emirates Stadium.

Herrera

Arsenal aren’t alone in their interest. Paris Saint-Germain have also been mentioned as potential suitors for Herrera, with the French giants reportedly willing to offer the midfielder £150,000 a week. If the Gunners are serious about moving for Herrera, they will face some serious competition.

Herrera is believed to be keen on staying at Man Utd. He has become a key member of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s midfield unit and so it would be quite a shock if he were to be pushed out the Old Trafford exit door this summer. But with every passing week that becomes a more viable eventuality.

Arsenal need a player like Herrera. With Aaron Ramsey leaving for Juventus at the end of the season, Unai Emery will require someone to compensate for the energy the Welshman brings. Herrera has his shortcomings as a central midfielder, but energy isn’t one thing he lacks.

In fact, that’s his greatest quality and why he has become so valuable to Manchester United over the past few weeks and months. While Paul Pogba drives them forward, opening up space in the final third, and Nemanja Matic provides the back four with a barrier, it’s Herrera who links it all up.

The signing of Herrera wouldn’t be a long term solution for Arsenal, but he would be an effective short-term fix following the loss of Ramsey. What’s more, it would be quite the coup for the Gunners, luring a key player from one of their biggest rivals. Herrera might well be the perfect fit for Arsenal, but getting him out of Man Utd, even taking into account the current contract standoff, could be the hard part.

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How much longer will Arsenal persist with Shkodran Mustafi?

At the time, it appeared a shrewd signing. A World Cup winner with Germany in 2014, Shkodran Mustafi looked to be a solid addition for Arsenal in the summer of 2016. The Gunners needed defensive reinforcements and the German, signed from Valencia for a fee of £35 million, seemed to fit the bill.

Since then, though Mustafi has become a perpetual source of frustration and exasperation for Arsenal fans. Never before has the Emirates Stadium faithful seen such an error prone player, and that’s saying something given the calamity merchants that have rolled through the club in recent years. On Tuesday, they were forced to watch another gaffe from the 26-year-old.

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In Tuesday’s friendly against Al Nasr, played in Dubai following a few days of warm weather training during the international break, Mustafi was at fault. Again. The German fell over not once, but twice as he attempted to block Ronnie Fernandez for the opener, playing something closer to crab football than anything resembling the professional game. It was comical, although not from an Arsenal standpoint.

Of course, this was a meaningless mistake. This was just a friendly, but Mustafi has become a liability in much bigger games, in the Premier League and Europa League this season. At this stage, it’s remarkable that he continues to hold down a place in Unai Emery’s starting lineup.

Mustafi has failed time and time again to learn from his mistakes. His gaffes can be traced all the way back to last season, when costly lapses in concentration were made in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City and Premier League games against Southampton and Newcastle United.

The German has carried his gaffe-prone ways over to this season. He is a source of the defensive insecurity that continues to dog Arsenal in the post-Arsene Wenger age. Emery has done his best to overhaul the culture of mediocrity that lingers at the Emirates Stadium, but until players like Mustafi are cast aside he won’t be able to do that entirely.

Arsenal must look to sell Mustafi as soon as possible. Far too frequently in the past the Gunners have shown faith in players who do not deserve it. Mustafi is one such player and so even if it takes taking a financial hit, which would likely be the case, the 26-year-old must be pushed out the door.

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Who should Arsenal target in the transfer market this summer?

It’s not yet certain what Arsenal’s season will hold, with the Gunners still in the chase for a top four finish and qualification to next season’s Champions League, but they must already start looking ahead to the summer. Speculation has already been sparked over who could arrive at the Emirates Stadium.

Of course, it’s not yet known if Arsenal will spend big. In January, they only signed Denis Suarez on loan from Barcelona, with their transfer market outlay last summer modest. The North London side aren’t even trying to challenge the likes of the two Manchester clubs and the two Spanish giants for players anymore. They need to look elsewhere.

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So who should they target this summer? Kieran Tierney has been linked with a move to the Emirates Stadium in recent weeks, with the Celtic left bak considered one of the best young prospects in the European game right now. With Nacho Monreal expected to move on at the end of the season, his signing would be a shrewd addition.

Unai Emery could use a wide attacker to compliment what he already has in the final third with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette and so Nicolas Pepe could be a target this summer, with the Lille winger attracted attention from a number of Premier League and European clubs.

However, Pepe could cost something close to £100 million and that would put the winger out of Arsenal’s reach. This could force the Gunners to look at younger options, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Christopher Nkunku linked with a move to North London. He would seem to fit the profile that Arsenal are looking for.

Much of Arsenal’s focus this summer will be on moving players out, rather than bringing them out. Aaron Ramsey is already set to make the move to Juventus when his contract runs out and Monreal, as already mentioned, is expected to leave the Emirates Stadium. Barcelona, of all clubs, are reported to be interested.

Then there’s the continuing Mesut Ozil saga. Emery hasn’t managed to keep his desire to get the German out of the club much of a secret, but on a contract of £350,000 finding a buyer for the playmaker will be tough. Bringing in the right players on a modest budget might prove just as tough for the Gunners.

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