Arsenal hoping for fans’ support and win against Milan
Sub-plot of Italian side’s visit will be Emirates attendance following recent low footfall
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger with his squad during training ahead of their Europa League clash with Milan. Photograph: Nigel French/PA Wire
Arsenal versus Milan ought to be one of the glamour fixtures of the season. Not this time. When the sixth-placed team in the Premier League takes on the sixth-placed team in Serie A at Emirates Stadium on Thursday night, it will be in the Europa League rather than the Champions League and, to borrow a line from Gazzetta dello Sport, it has the feel of a clash of lost nobility.
Arsenal have stabilised a little since the nightmare defeats to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final and the league, followed by another at Brighton & Hove Albion, with the 2-0 win in Milan last Thursday – in the first-leg of this last 16 tie – being talked up by the optimists like Arsene Wenger as the catalyst. His team also beat Watford 3-0 at home on Sunday.
Yet a principle sub-plot of Milan’s visit will be the Emirates attendance and, specifically, how many Arsenal fans actually want to watch their team at present. It is worth noting they have paid for their seats as part of season-ticket packages. The stadium was half-full for the 3-0 loss to City two weeks ago – on a bitterly cold night – and roughly two-thirds so for Watford on a more clement Sunday lunchtime.
“It was early on Sunday,” Wenger said, overlooking the fact that the 1.30pm kick-off was not that early; thankfully, he did not mention Mother’s Day. “I have played in front of sold-out stadiums for 22 years and I am grateful. If there are one or two games and the stadium is not completely full, we have to look at ourselves and get the fans behind us again.”
“Hopefully there won’t be so many empty seats,” Aaron Ramsey, added. “But we’re just focused on trying to win a football game. Hopefully our performances on the pitch will encourage many to come back.”
Arsenal – and Wenger – are locked in a battle to regain the trust of the support but it feels as though their latest assignment offers them a hiding to nothing. With the hard work seemingly done at San Siro, progress has come to be taken for granted. Elimination, on the other hand, would reignite crisis. Milan were awful in the first-leg, despite their recent revival under Rino Gattuso. Arsenal dare not muck it up, particularly as their season has come to rest on this competition.
The first goal has assumed tremendous importance. If Arsenal were to score it, the tie would be over but if they conceded, it would not be difficult to imagine the panic. Remember Ostersunds in the last 32, when Arsenal flirted with disaster in the return leg at the Emirates?
“Europe gives you a psychological problem,” Wenger said. “When you have won away from home, you have to finish the job at home but it is not easy because it always puts the team who is playing against you in the position of having nothing to lose.”
Wenger will pick his best team from near full-strength ranks; only the cup-tied Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injured Alexandre Lacazette are missing. “Your job is to get everybody to suffer,” Wenger told his audience of journalists. “Our job is to get as few people to suffer as possible.”