Mikel Arteta has labelled Arsenal’s Europa League second leg tie with Benfica “a final” but says he’s not intimidated by big pressure occasions.
After last week’s 1-1 draw with the Portuguese giants in Rome, the sides head to Athens to slug things out with qualification for the competition’s last-16 on the line.
In light of the Gunners struggles on the domestic front – we slipped to 11th in the table last night – it looks as though this season’s continental exploits will dictate whether we’re in Europe again next season.
“It’s a big season and a really important [game] mentally and confidence-wise,” he told his pre-game press conference.
“It’s going to dictate if we’re in another competition or not for a few more weeks. This is really what we need. It’s a really tough opponent.
It’s a Champions League team who have been playing in these types of games for many years with a manager with huge experience. For us tomorrow, it’s a final.
“I always feel that it [pressure] is [on me], every time you’re playing in a competition and you can go out you know the consequences and with this club [the aim] is always to win the competition that you are in so that doesn’t really change much.”
While the boss hasn’t given up on qualifying for the Champions League via the top four – a very unlikely outcome – he knows momentum can only be built if his players are firing on all cylinders consistently.
“I think while mathematically everything is possible, in football you have to try so hard,” he said.
“We’re going to do that in the league for sure. It’s true that the Europa League gives you a completely different route and is a competition that we want to carry on playing, and try to win it.
“Tomorrow is another opportunity to make a step forward. The better we are in the Europa League, the better we’re going to be performing in the league and vice-versa. We need to be alive in both competitions.”
Arteta has already experienced a number of big-ticket games since he’s been in charge. Last season qualification for Europe came down to an against-the-odds success in the FA Cup. More recently, his players picked themselves up off the canvas to mount a winning run following a surprising Boxing Day victory against Chelsea. The boss made clear that these are the occasions that really excite.
He said: “This is why we are here! When you play in these competitions and these games, finals too, it’s the pressure that you want.
“It’s much better to have the pressure to win than the pressure not to lose. I really enjoy the pressure of winning and to be here and to represent this club you have to be prepared to do that. If not, you don’t belong here.”