Thursday 13 December 2018

Wenger set to put faith in Cech in make-or-break Arsenal tie

Arsenal's Petr Cech. Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Arsenal's Petr Cech. Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

The critical importance of tonight's Europa League quarter-final first leg against CSKA Moscow to Arsenal's season and Arsene Wenger's future was underlined yesterday with the growing expectation that Petr Cech would return to the starting team.

David Ospina has played in eight of the club's 10 Europa League matches so far this season, as well as the domestic cup competitions, but he took Cech's usual Premier League place last Sunday and Wenger was yesterday unwilling to say who would start tonight.

With the Premier League now of secondary importance to Arsenal amid the chance both of a trophy and Champions League qualification via the Europa League, Wenger has been seriously considering a change to his usual policy.

Cech, who won both the Europa League and Champions League at Chelsea, replaced Ospina as first choice in the Premier League after joining Arsenal in 2015 and to now alter his wider role mid-season would clearly represent a blow to the Colombia goalkeeper.

In picking Ospina for last month's League Cup final defeat against Manchester City, Wenger said that he had "decided to have clarity in the games they play" and the guarantees he offered about matches in cup competition have helped keep the 29-year-old at Arsenal.

Yet Wenger's position will be reviewed this summer amid what has been the worst Premier League season of his 22-year tenure and the recent sight of swathes of empty seats at the Emirates Stadium.

This will be Arsenal's first European quarter-final since 2010 and, having previously reached seven quarter-finals in the first 14 years of his tenure, Wenger is convinced that the club's supporters will turn out in force tonight.

CSKA Moscow are expected to bring around only 500 fans and, while Arsenal are confident about their security arrangements, Wenger also outlined a hope that the heightened political tension between England and Russia would not impact upon any supporter.

"I'm not worried about the attendance," said Wenger. "I think the crowd, when something is at stake, is always there and behind us.

"On top of that, what will decide the crowd's attitude is the quality of our game. I don't think Arsenal has a problem with its support.

"It's just that Arsenal fans are disappointed that we don't go for anything strong in the Premier League. You learn from your performances."

For all the unrest over the ongoing failure to mount a domestic league title challenge, Arsenal are also going for what would be their fourth trophy in just over four years and Wenger is adamant that the Europa League has genuinely grown in stature and quality.

"The level has gone up and it is more difficult than ever before, especially as there is more focus since you had a place for the Champions League," he said.

Alexandre Lacazette scored from the penalty spot on his return against Stoke on Sunday following knee surgery and, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible in the Europa League, Wenger believes that he is physically ready to make his first start in more than two months.

Danny Welbeck has been Arsenal's main Europa League striker so far in the knockout phase and scored twice in the 3-1 away win against AC Milan.

(© Daily Telegraph, London)

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