Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal future may hinge on beating Atletico Madrid after his team received the worst possible draw for their Europa League semi-final.
Striker Alexandre Lacazette had suggested immediately after Thursday’s 6-3 aggregate quarter-final win against CSKA Moscow that there was a feeling within Arsenal’s squad that winning the Europa League could keep Wenger as manager, and the players must now achieve that feat the hard way.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico are Europa League favourites after twice reaching the Champions League final and also winning La Liga over recent seasons. There was a theory that Arsenal’s best chance would be to avoid them until the final, which is played over one leg, but they will instead host Atletico at The Emirates on April 26 before the second leg in Madrid a week later.
Arsenal face Newcastle away on Sunday in the Premier League and, after only arriving back from Moscow at 5am on Friday morning, Wenger is also concerned by fatigue in his squad.
After also reaching the League Cup final, Arsenal could play 61 games by the end of the season if they do reach the Europa League and there was particular concern on Thursday over Jack Wilshere who came off after taking a kick to his ankle.
“Fatigue is a little bit of a concern,” said Wenger. “You look at [Manchester] City and they look a bit like that in the second half of games recently. I do rotate much as I can. Unfortunately some players have to play all the games.
“It is very difficult. Not only are you physically very jaded but also you are under huge pressure each time to win the game. It is mentally maybe tougher than physically.”
Arsenal’s overwhelming priority now will be their first European semi-final since the 2009 Champions League and Wenger hopes to use a rare clear midweek after Newcastle to give his players the chance to recover.
Wenger noticeably ignored a pre-match question about whether he would continue as manager if Arsenal do not win the competition and, with CSKA Moscow very close at one stage on Thursday to overhauling a three-goal deficit, there was also sense that the future of the club’s longest-serving manager was on the line.
Atletico had their own problems on Thursday in only progressing 2-1 on aggregate against Sporting Lisbon and they were also eliminated from the Champions League earlier this season from a group containing Chelsea and Roma. They are currently second in La Liga, 11 points behind Barcelona but four ahead of Real Madrid.
Arsenal have always either finished in the Premier League's top four or won a trophy in each of Wenger’s 21 completed seasons but, with the club 13 points off Tottenham in the Premier League, that record will come to an end if they do not triumph in Europe.
Asked about Wenger and the Europa League, Lacazette said: “It can be the way to keep the manager because he did so much good for the club. It will save our season because in the Premier League we are not doing well."
Despite Arsenal’s big wobble in Moscow - Wenger admitted that the the team were “not at the races” in falling 2-0 behind - goalkeeper Petr Cech felt that their response in the last 20 minutes showed some encouraging qualities.
“I thought we showed a lot of maturity in the last 20 minutes because we were under a lot of pressure but we played our best part of the game,” said Cech.
“We put ourselves in a very bad position and we actually found our way with a good calmness and I really like that. We found our feet and deserved to score at the end.”
Cech acknowledged that winning the Europa League would save the season and, despite the worst Premier League season campaign Wenger, said that it would show a progression following last year’s FA Cup win. “This is another opportunity to add a great trophy to the cabinet,” said Cech.
“You need to keep the progression. You keep that not only on the pitch but by winning things. A club of Arsenal’s size and history belongs in the Champions League.”
Dates for your diary
The first legs will be on Thursday 26 April, with the returns taking place on Thursday 3 May.
Arsenal will host Atletico Madrid at the Emirates in the first half of the tie - just three days before they travel to Manchester United in the Premier League.
Arsenal vs Atletico Madrid
Arsenal will play Europa League favourites Atletico Madrid.
The first leg will take place at the Emirates.
Marseille vs RB Salzburg
Which means Arsenal will play Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals! Oh dear.
Former Barcelona Eric Abidal
Is on hand to draw the all-important balls. He's also the official Europa League final ambassador, apparently.
Atletico Madrid the nightmare draw?
Arsene Wenger would not be drawn on who he wants to avoid.
Asked if he would prefer to avoid favourites Atletico, who are second in La Liga behind Barcelona, he said: "Ideally, maybe they are the strongest on paper, but let's play well against the team we get."
10 minutes to go
Here's a quick reminder of the draw in full, with winner odds.
- Arsenal 5/2
- Atletico Madrid evens
- Marseille 9/2
- RB Salzburg 6/1
Rambo in the wars
Aaron Ramsey had to have a nasty-looking leg wound stapled during Arsenal's quarter-final win in Moscow.
The midfielder, who scored a stoppage-time goal after returning to the pitch following treatment at half-time, shared a graphic picture of his injury on his Instagram account.
Arsene Wenger will be hoping the 27-year-old makes a speedy recovery having played such an integral role in Arsenal's European campaign thus far.
Can the Europa League trophy save Arsene Wenger's job?
Arsenal striker Alexandre Lacazette reckons it can. Here's a snippet from Jeremy Wilson's piece from earlier this morning.
It can be the way to keep the manager because he did so much good for the club. It will save our season because in the Premier League we are not doing well.
I really want to be in the final to play in front of my family and friends but it’s not only that - I came to Arsenal because I want to win trophies.
Petr Cech: Arsenal need to win the Europa League
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech has piled the pressure on his teammates by insisting winning the Europa League is the only way that they can save their season.
Cech, who was arguably at fault for the CSKA's second goal on Thursday night, says Arsenal have a 'big responsibility' to win the competition and qualify for the Champions League.
"You can feel it, there is a big responsibility for everyone because we know with the position we are in the league," Cech said, speaking after the game.
"It is difficult, someone would have to have a big meltdown in the last seven games to give us a chance to sneak into the top four through the league.
"We know this is our chance to book our Champions League spot. But not only that, you play a European competition for a cup and for a cup the club has never won. This is another opportunity to add a great trophy to the cabinet.
"A club of Arsenal’s size and history belongs in the Champions League. Hopefully we can progress another round and give it a shot in the final."
Hello and welcome to our coverage of the Europa League semi-final draw, with Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg and Marseille all in the hat.
Arsenal survived a second leg scare in Moscow to book their place in the last four and keep their hopes alive of qualifying for the Champions League by winning the competition.
CSKA Moscow reduced Arsenal's aggregate lead to just one goal after 60 minutes sparking concerns that the Premier League club were going to become the latest high-profile team to be on the wrong end of a dramatic comeback.
But goals from first Danny Welbeck and then Aaron Ramsey calmed Arsenal's nerves and ensured a 6-3 aggregate victory.
Arsene Wenger's side will now face one of Atletico Madrid, RB Salzburg or Marseille.
Arsenal will be keen to avoid Diego Simeone's side who currently sit second in La Liga, nine points behind league leaders Barcelona.
Atletico Madrid, who won the Europa League in 2010 and 2012, survived a mini-scare of their own before seeing off Sporting Lisbon to ensure their place in the semi-final draw.
Having won the first leg 2-0 at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico were able to protect their narrow first-leg, despite losing 1-0 to a Fredy Montero first-half header in Lisbon.
In the night's most dramatic tie, Red Bull Salzburg came from behind to earn a stunning 4-1 second-leg victory to secure an unlikely Europa League semi-final berth at the expense of Lazio.
Salzburg scored four goals in 20 second-half minutes to overturn a three-goal deficit and complete a 6-5 win on aggregate.
Marseille matched the heroics of their Austrian counterparts by overturning a slender one-goal deficit from their first leg against RB Leipzig with an extraordinary 5-2 victory in the south of France.
Former West Ham playmaker Dimitri Payet scored a thrilling solo goal to help the Ligue Un side complete the semi-final line up.