MIKEL ARTETA made eight changes to his Europa League line-up – and he must be tempted to give a few of the fringe players a run-out in the second leg after they swatted Newcastle aside.
Arsenal’s fabulous record against the Toon – they have now won 17 of their last 18 meetings, without conceding a goal in the last six – suggested this was a game where Arteta could take a few liberties.
Sure enough, Newcastle were there for the taking. Any fight they had evaporated after Mohamed Elneny gave the Gunners a fifth minute lead with a peach of a strike from the edge of the penalty box.
Elneny stated a strong case to start against Villarreal on Thursday in place of Dani Ceballas, who will be sitting that one out after his red card in the first leg.
As well as bagging his first Premier League goal, at the 66th attempt, the Egyptian midfielder went agonisingly close to a second, with Miguel Almiron clearing his header off the line.
Elneny got forward far more than he usually does, and it is worth remembering his only previous goals this season both came in the Europa League.
Hector Bellerin, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel should also come into the reckoning, while skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks certain to start after showing terrific athleticism to hook home the second goal.
Aubameyang may not be fully fit yet after being laid low by a bout of malaria, but his strike showed all the killer instinct Arsenal will need to claim a place in the Europa League final.
With the Gunners needing to overturn a 2-1 deficit, Arteta would probably have been tempted to hand the ever-enigmatic David Luiz another start.
But it looks like his season may be over after he suffered a recurrence of his hamstring problem early in the second half.
Luiz missed seven games after suffering the original injury, and after the way he went down clutching his thigh it is hard to see him playing any further part in this dismal Arsenal campaign.
He had shown his ability to unpick a defence with the superb long ball that sent Bellerin haring into the box, to set up Elneny for Arsenal’s earliest Premier League goal of the season.
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The Villarreal game offers Arsenal a chance to salvage this season, but Arteta will need to address his team’s lack of threat from set pieces.
At least they should be high on confidence after only their second win in their last seven Premier League games lifted them back into the top half of the table.
The fact that is a cause for celebrations says volumes about where the Gunners are these days.
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