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Full Time

Why Europa League is Arsenal's only chance to save their season

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

For the final time this season, Arsenal's Europa League match this week will be overshadowed by their domestic commitments.

Arsenal host FK Ostersunds tonight in a tie which they already lead 3-0. But everyone's attention will ultimately be on Sunday, when the Gunners go back to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City.

That is why Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey are not being rushed back tonight, although they are in contention for Sunday.

Arsenal do not want to overcommit resources to a dead game when they have a very live and important one in three days' time, especially given City have been resting since getting knocked out of the FA Cup on Monday night.

But it will not always be like this. After Sunday, whatever happens at Wembley and presuming that the Gunners manage to avoid disaster tonight, then the Europa League will become Arsenal's only way of saving their season.

They are still stuck in sixth in the Premier League, eight points and plenty of goal difference behind Chelsea - with Tottenham far nearer - and so the chances of them qualifying for next season's Champions League through that route are extremely slim.

So once this last-32 clash is navigated, and Arsenal move into March's last-16 and possibly April's quarter-finals, there will come a point when they have to take this competition more seriously than anything else.

That happened last year with Manchester United when Jose Mourinho realised that he was not going to finish fourth, so he focused on the Europa League instead. And it worked: United beat Ajax in the final to ensure they made it into this season's Champions League.

Soon enough Wenger will have to do the same if he wants this Arsenal season to end with something approaching glory in Lyon on May 16, and a passage into the 2018-19 Champions League.

There are some serious teams likely to be in the last-16: Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao, Napoli, RB Leipzig, Milan, Sporting and Marseille. Teams that Arsenal's second string will not be able to beat but their first string could.

Danny Welbeck will start up front tonight, although when Alexandre Lacazette returns from his knee injury he will likely become Arsenal's specialist Europa League No.9.

The £53m man has been squeezed out of the Premier League side by the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who is cup-tied for the remainder of the competition.

Wenger won't risk Ozil or Ramsey this evening but they will have to be integrated into the Europa League team in time.

Arsenal's Premier League run-in - aside from a trip to Old Trafford on April 28 - is relatively straightforward.

What they need is to keep this run going in Europe, even if it means dropping even more points, falling further away in their futile league campaign.

Belfast Telegraph

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