You don’t have to look too hard to see the similarities between Arsenal and Thursday night’s Europa League opponents, Benfica.
Both sides are battling to find consistency amidst underwhelming league campaigns and both have managers who, while at differing stages of their careers, are fairly new to their posts and aiming to rediscover their respective sides’ best form.
For their part, Benfica and manager Jorge Jesus currently sit in fourth place in Liga NOS, some 13 points behind league leaders Sporting Lisbon. Jesus is in his second spell in charge at Benfica after returning to the club in July from a trophy-laden spell at Flamengo.
Jesus is the club’s most successful manager ever, having won three championship titles in his six-year spell at the club between 2009-15, but he has struggled to recapture that form this season, having won just 11 of his club’s 19 matches (with three defeats and five draws).
The spectre of last season also still looms large for the Eagles as they surrendered the league title to Porto despite having topped the table for most of the campaign. A dreadful run of just two wins in 10 league games either side of the COVID-enforced break opened the door for Porto to win the league by just five points and defeat in the Taca de Portugal final amounted to a miserable campaign, costing manager Bruno Lage is job.
Having dropped out of Champions League qualification in the third round in August, Benfica entered the Europa League group stage and made heavy weather of qualification, although they were without defeat in six matches. They also played out two entertaining draws with Steven Gerrard’s Rangers, sharing six goals and four goals.
In short, the Lisbon-based side are in indifferent form (with just two wins in eight domestically) and don’t come into their clash with Arsenal full of confidence. But this season of surprises has shown time and again that reputation and form can count for precious little and, with little to lose, Benfica may just make for a dangerous opponent.
Arsenal and Mikel Arteta will need to be acutely aware of that and of the impact momentary lapses can have on games. Victory over Leeds on Sunday has restored a little of the confidence lost in defeats to Aston Villa and Wolves but there is still work to be done in Arteta’s own search for consistency.
The toll of long-distance travel and of playing in two neutral venues will also need to be considered, as will the juggling act of fitting two European fixtures around an imposing Premier League schedule that includes games against Manchester City and Leicester over the next fortnight.
There are plenty of players who could do with a rest in the coming weeks having played a lot of minutes this season and others that could do with a few minutes more so there is a balance to be struck but not one that should risk our passage through to the latter stages of the competition.
There is still a lot of work to be done by both managers to truly convince in this campaign of transition and both will be desperate to build some momentum with a positive result in the first leg. For Arsenal’s sake, however, let’s hope we can begin to create some differences between these two similar clubs with similar stories by delivering a commanding performance on Thursday.