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Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said he is hoping for a “miracle” in the race to finish in the Premier League’s top four, after the Gunners beat AC Milan 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium to reach the quarter-finals of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday.
The 5-1 aggregate victory has come after a difficult spell for Arsenal, which included three league defeats in succession and the 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final.
Per the Press Association (h/t Sky Sports), Wenger said: “For the climate around the team, it was a vital result. We have targets to finish as close as possible to the top four, and why not benefit from a miracle? But as well, focus on the quarter-final now.”
The Gunners’ domestic form has left them in sixth place, 12 points behind Liverpool, who occupy fourth.
Per football writer James McNicholas, Wenger seemingly holds the Europa League responsible for their domestic failings:
Arsene claims stats prove every team who plays in the Europa League is struggling in their domestic league. Not sure that’s borne out…
However, Atletico Madrid—who are the team to beat in the competition—are second in La Liga, while Marseille are behind only Paris Saint-Germain and reigning champions Monaco in Ligue 1. Even RB Leipzig, who are sixth in the Bundesliga, are just six points off second.
The bloated nature of the Europa League, which features nine matches in the knockout phase including the final, puts a strain on those who go deep in the competition. The Gunners have only been in the top four after three Premier League matchdays this season, though, the last of which was before Christmas, long before the knockout phase of the Europa League began.
Per James Benge of the Evening Standard, Wenger also defended Arsenal’s form last season:
James Benge @jamesbenge
Wenger defended his league form, pointing to the fact that no team has got 75 points and not finished in the top four before. That is true but in 2007-08 and 2013-14 a tally of 75 would not have been enough for a top four finish.
Even if Arsenal win all eight of their remaining matches they can only achieve a maximum of 72 points this time around, so a miracle would be needed.
Wenger was also asked about Danny Welbeck—who scored twice on Thursday along with Granit Xhaka after Hakan Calhanoglu had pulled one back for the Rossoneri—after he was awarded a penalty despite there being little contact between himself and Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez.
Alastair Grant/Associated Press
The Frenchman has been vocal about English players diving, and he pledged to be honest with Welbeck after watching the incident back:
“I haven’t seen it again. Do you want to accuse English players of being divers?
“There’s two things: was it a penalty or not? I don’t know. The Italian players were unhappy with it. I can understand that, because I don’t really know what it was. After that, Danny took the penalty in a convincing way, and I will watch it again and give my honest feeling about it.
“I will give him my honest feeling about it as well, don’t worry.”
The incident divided ESPN’s Mattias Karen and Football.London’s Charles Watts:
Mattias Karén @MattiasKaren
Yeah I’ll give Welbeck the benefit of the doubt: he just tripped over his own feet, rather than dived. (We’ve seen that before from him). Certainly didn’t look a penalty though. #AFCvACM
Charles Watts @charles_watts
Horrendous dive from Welbeck – Awful.
Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso took a relaxed view of the incident:
James Olley @JamesOlley
Gattuso on Welbeck: “He’s a striker. He has to do what he does. But we can’t use that as a reference for the entire English football. There is a great deal of fair play in England. There was a lot at stake. When I was a player, I tried to take advantage of individual situations.”
The penalty could result in more scrutiny being placed on Welbeck, who has been tasked with leading the line in the Europa League with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible and Alexandre Lacazette injured.
Winning the competition will be difficult and much will depend on the draw, but it’s Arsenal’s best chance of getting into the UEFA Champions League—it’s vital they continue to progress.