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Arteta backs under-par Willian ahead of Benfica tie


Willian has been underperforming for Arsenal. Photo: Reuters

Willian has been underperforming for Arsenal. Photo: Reuters

Willian has been underperforming for Arsenal. Photo: Reuters

Mikel Arteta has said he understands the criticism of Willian but has vowed to “protect and support” the struggling Brazilian as he looks to rediscover his form following a disappointing start to his Arsenal career.

Willian is in contention to play in Arsenal’s Europa League round of 32 first leg against Benfica tonight, but is expected to once again be on the bench after so far being unable to replicate his performances at former club Chelsea.

The free signing has yet to score for Arsenal since joining on a three-year deal in the summer. He has not started a league match since Dec 19 and has been heavily criticised for his performances.

Asked if that criticism was unfair, Arteta said: “I don’t say it’s unfair because obviously expectations are really high in terms of the goals he can score, the assists he can create.

“You expect him to be in the starting line-up, so it is normal that people write things about him. We have to protect him, we have to support him as much as we can, because he deserves it with the way he handles his profession and the way he is every day with us.”

Willian’s professionalism was one of the key reasons that Arsenal targeted him in the transfer market and Arteta said the 32-year-old is showing “full commitment” behind closed doors.

“What he is doing at the moment, the way he is training and the way he is pushing to give everything to the team is what I demand,” said Arteta.

“Whether he is more successful or less successful in the game is another matter. It will come, with the quality that he has. But what I demand from every player is full commitment and to put the passion, and everything they have, in every training session and when they have the opportunity to play. So far Willian has done that every single day.”

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Arsenal are facing Benfica in Rome due to coronavirus travel restrictions and they will have captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang available after suggestions he may have broken lockdown rules.

Aubameyang was pictured with a tattoo artist over the weekend but Arteta said the matter has been dealt with internally and there are no doubts over the striker’s involvement against Benfica.

Arsenal were knocked out of the Europa League at this stage of the competition last season by Olympiacos and Arteta said they must learn from their mistakes if they are to progress past Benfica, who are currently fourth in the Portuguese league.

“I thought it was very cruel, the way we got knocked out,” said the Arsenal manager. “The big lesson there is that you have to play every single minute of the competition with high focus. Every detail matters and every situation has to be handled.

“Being able to manage the game the way it is required is very important and that has to be in the back of your mind. You have to be able to control your emotions and be able to change the game when you need to.

“It was a really tough experience for all of us, the way it happened, because I think we deserved to go through. I think that created more hunger, for this season, to do more and we have to use that.”

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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