Soccer: Milan vs. Arsenal (Europa League: Round of 16, Leg 1)
Arsenal has never lost five games in a row during Arsene Wenger’s 22-year reign, but they are now staring that miserable prospect in the face. First the Gunners slumped to an embarrassing defeat against Swedish minnows Ostersunds at The Emirates, and a 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final followed. City thrashed Arsenal again four days later, and Wenger’s beleaguered troops lost to relegation-threatened Brighton on Sunday. The saving grace of that dismal run was that Arsenal scraped through into the last 16 of the Europa League on aggregate against Ostersunds. But the upshot is that they now face a rejuvenated AC Milan at the San Siro, and the Rossoneri could be the team to inflict a fifth straight defeat on Arsenal.
The last time the Gunners visited the legendary stadium, they lost 4-0 against Milan in 2012, as Kevin-Prince Boateng, Robinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ran riot. A 3-0 win in the second leg of the Champions League last 16 was not enough to save them, and they were out of Europe’s premier competition. Milan is no longer such a force on the continent, but neither is Arsenal.
At the turn of the year, the Gunners would have been the clear favourites to win this tie. Milan was languishing in mid-table in Serie A, a pitiful return on a summer investment of nearly £200 million from wealthy new Chinese owners. But new boss Gennaro Gattuso, who played on the 2012 team and replaced Vincenzo Montella in late November, has since turned things around for the Rossoneri. They have since gone on a 13-game unbeaten run in all competitions, and that has seen them reach the final of Coppa Italia. They remain seventh in the Serie A table, 23 points off the pace, but they could soon leapfrog Sampdoria into the European places.
Milan comfortably dispatched Ludogorets in the last Europa League round to set up this tie, and they will go into Thursday's game against Arsenal brimming with confidence. The new players are starting to click and, while they lack an out-and-out goal scorer, the forwards are doing a good job of sharing the load, and Suso has delivered some eye-catching performances.
Arsenal, meanwhile, is in freefall and has lost eight games since the turn of the year. Wenger seems to have lost the dressing room and they are heading deeper into a spiral of doom. They have lacked backbone, leadership and tactical discipline. They have failed at the basic on far too many occasions, and they are not even playing sumptuous attacking football any more. Record-signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is starved of service, Mesut Ozil has gone missing since signing a new contract, the defense is an on-going comedy of errors, and Petr Cech has been abysmal between the sticks.
However, it is worth noting that Arsenal is given a far better chance of winning the Europa League than AC Milan. The Gunners are second-favorites with Green Listed Bookmakers, as low as 9/2 with Sun Bets but a market-leading 7/1 with Betway. Milan, meanwhile, is all the way out at 15/1 with Unibet (green-listed bookmaker) and 888sport (green-listed bookmaker), seventh in the betting. It has to be said that the Premiership is a far superior league to Serie A nowadays. That is reflected by the English top flight having five representatives in the last 16 of the Champions League, compared to Italy’s two. On paper, Arsenal still probably have the better team than AC Milan, but their confidence is exceptionally fragile right now.
Arsenal is the favorite to qualify, 8/11 with Ladbrokes (green-listed bookmaker) and 79/100 with Marathonbet, while Milan is a 6/5 underdog with Green Listed Bookmakers. But the Gunners are huge outsiders in the first leg, priced at 14/5 with Unibet (green-listed bookmaker), while most bookmakers are offering 21/20 or 11/10 on Milan. That reflects Arsenal’s dreadful away form this season, and they will struggle to secure victory in Milan. Aubameyang is ineligible, Alexandre Lacazette is injured and Olivier Giroud has left the club, so it will be left to the astoundingly ineffectual Danny Welbeck to lead the line, flanked by Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Right now it is hard to see Arsenal avoiding defeat and the odds on offer for Milan winning this one look hard to ignore. If you are feeling more cautious, Sun Bets has 5/9 on Milan draw no bet.