Atletico Madrid v Arsenal Thursday 03 April, 20:05 Live on BT Sport
Classic Simeone-ball has Atletico on cusp of progress
Last Thursday's first leg in north London exhibited so much of what has been and continues to be good about Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone. Having lost defender Sime Vrsaljko to two bookings before the tie had barely begun, Atleti battened down the hatches and fought with supreme intensity. Midfielder Thomas Partey has revealed that Atleti trained specifically for a 10 vs 11 situation the day before the game, and that preparation paid off handsomely. Partey was particularly impressive, filling in as an emergency right-back.
Atleti dug in, and then exposed Arsenal's defensive weakness to score a late away goal through Antoine Griezmann. The club from the Spanish capital now have the advantage, but they will be incredibly wary of blowing it now, with the final in Lyon so close. Atleti failed at home in the second leg of their Copa del Rey semi-final against Sevilla, and their home defeat to Chelsea in the group stage of the Champions League ultimately proved costly.
It's taken a while for the Wanda Metropolitano to feel like home for Atleti, but they are now showing incredibly consistent form in their sparkling new arena. They haven't lost at home since that cup semi-final against Sevilla in mid-January, and they have conceded just one goal in 12 home matches since. Bearing in mind that Arsenal must score at least once to progress, that's a significant statistic.
At time of writing it still wasn't completely clear whether Simeone would be banned from the touchline after his meltdown and sending-off at the Emirates. If he is banned, his assistant German Burgos is a big enough and astute enough character to step in, and touchline sanctions aren't exactly out of the ordinary for Simeone. I don't see this as a major influence on the match either way.
Diego Costa is in line to resume hostilities with Arsenal after he proved his fitness at the weekend, while Partey may again fill in at right-back, with Vrsaljko suspended and Juanfran struggling with injury.
Arsenal can't afford mental weakness in Madrid
Just as last Thursday's 1-1 draw was classic Atleti, it was in some ways classic Arsenal too. Chances were made, bright football was played, but a late sucker-punch put the Gunners on the canvas. A comedy of errors allowed Griezmann to score late on, and having played almost the entire game with numerical superiority, Arsenal ended up in a worse position than they started in.
This is Arsene Wenger's 250th match as a coach in UEFA competitions, and he is desperate for it not to be his last with the club he has given such a huge part of his life to. However, Arsenal's miserable away record shouldn't fill him with confidence. Arsenal still haven't picked up a single Premier League point on their travels in 2018, which is quite frankly a pathetic record, and it's a stretch to expect them to keep pulling performances like the win at Milan out of the ether. They came close to blowing a 4-1 first-leg lead at CSKA Moscow before rallying late on, and although they rail against the suggestion they are mentally weak, the body of evidence is hard to dismiss.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan returned to fitness and scored in the 2-1 defeat at Manchester United on Sunday, but midfielder Mohamed Elneny is still injured, and striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is ineligible.
Atleti to finish the job in style
Atletico will have been scarred by their failure against Sevilla in January, but they have since demonstrated an iron resolve at home. They lived off scraps at the Emirates, and still managed a creditable draw, and it's hard to escape the notion that Arsenal have blown their big chance.
Arsenal fans will point to that excellent win in Milan in the last 16, but how many times have they produced that kind of display away from home? If the Gunners have lost in Bournemouth, Brighton, Swansea, Newcastle, Watford and Stoke this season, why should we believe they will suddenly click and win in Madrid?
With a bit more freedom, I expect Griezmann to make his mark (four goals in his last seven games), especially with Costa snarling and fighting alongside him. Atleti have won all three of their Europa League home games so far, and I'll back them to make that four out of four at 1.80.
Goals a tricky call
This is a tough one. Arsenal have to score, but they know only one goal might be enough, so it seems unlikely they'll take too many early risks. If Atleti click into their usual European mode, they'll look to produce a controlled display without any defensive errors or unnecessary gambles. On that basis, Under 2.5 Goals seems a sensible play at 1.83, but not one that fills me with any great confidence or excitement.
Costa a nice price to have his say
Diego Costa should start on Thursday, and has plenty of experience of playing Arsenal. He has scored three goals in six games against the Gunners, and has been willing to test their physical and mental resolve with his all-action style.
Costa is 2.64to score inside 90 minutes, with the in-form Griezmann is 1.91.