Both legs of Arsenal-Benfica tie set for neutral venues

Both legs of Arsenal’s Europa League last-32 tie against Benfica are set to be played in neutral venues in order to satisfy UK coronavirus restrictions.

The UK is implementing strict coronavirus quarantine rules around people entering the country from Portugal, which has forced the February matches to be moved from Lisbon and London to neutral territory. Portugal is on a “red list” of countries drawn up by the UK Government.

Benfica’s home leg on February 18 will be played at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, while the return fixture on February 25 looks set to be moved to the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens.

UEFA confirmed the venue for the first leg, while Arsenal said the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens, the home of Olympiacos, would host the second leg but have since deleted that post from their website, with the venue for that match yet to be officially confirmed by UEFA.

European football’s governing body also added that the away goals rule will remain in place.

Stadio Olimpico (Getty)
Arsenal will play their away leg against Benfica in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on February 18

Arsenal topped Group B in the Europa League after winning all six of their games to progress to the knockouts.

Benfica finished second to Rangers in Group D after claiming three wins from their six outings in the group stages.

The first legs of Liverpool and Manchester City’s Champions League ties against RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach have been moved to Budapest, and UEFA confirmed on Tuesday that Manchester United’s first-leg match against Real Sociedad will now take place at the Juventus Stadium in Turin.

Arsenal were due to face Benfica in the Estadio da Luz on February 18

Saliba: Arteta judged me on two and a half matches

William Saliba has spoken out on his difficult spell at Arsenal, saying Gunners boss Mikel Arteta “judged me on two and a half matches” and “told me I wasn’t ready”.

Signed by Arsenal from Saint-Etienne in the summer of 2019 for a fee of around £27m, there were high hopes of the 19-year-old defender, especially with Arsenal’s struggles at centre-back.

William Saliba

He was sent straight back to Saint-Etienne on loan and expected to make an impact when he arrived back in London, but the defender, who made two appearances in the Football League Trophy for Arsenal’s U23s, failed to make a single senior appearance for the north London club before being sent back on loan to Ligue 1 with Nice in January.

However, Saliba has impressed at Nice, winning the club’s player of the month award for January, and his good form has led him to say he wasn’t given enough of a chance at Arsenal.

‘I was waiting for Arteta to give me a chance’

“It is clear that so much has changed in the last year,” he told RMC Sport.

“When I saw that the coach changed a lot changed for me too. In this year there has been a lot of change. He [Arteta] judged me on two and a half matches. I would have liked for him to play me more. But he told me I wasn’t ready.

William Saliba has made seven appearances for Nice in Ligue 1
William Saliba has made seven appearances for Nice in Ligue 1

“I was waiting for him to give me a chance, but football is like that. When I initially came to Arsenal the league looked very good, so I showed up to training and wanted to train on my own to show the coach I was ready.

“I am happy now. I want to play for Nice. The idea when you’re part of a team is a better feeling for me.”

Saliba speaks out: ‘It hurt me’

This is not the first interview Saliba, who was left out of Arsenal’s Europa League squad earlier in the season, has done since his January departure from the Gunners.

He has spoken out three times in as many weeks and in another recent interview, he revealed he was left ‘hurt’ by the lack of game time at Arsenal.

“Honestly, if you told me a year ago, I honestly would not have believed you,” he told TF1.

“I really, really, really didn’t think that I would be transferred for €30m and to think that I would arrive, where people were expecting a lot from me and the fans were excited about me, and you find yourself in the reserves, play zero, zero nothing in the Europa League or the league. I was in the squad once in the League Cup.

“It hurt me, it affected me. I don’t think I left too early. When you feel ready you have to go. I don’t think I left too early. These things happen. I believe in myself.”

When asked about his future, he said: “I don’t know. I have learned now that it is better not to look too far in the future. So, I am focused on just these six months to try to give absolutely everything and for the rest, we will see.”

Since arriving at Nice, Saliba has made seven appearances in Ligue 1 and helped his new side to two victories and two clean sheets.

William Saliba

What Arteta has said…

Despite Saliba’s problematic start to life at Arsenal, Arteta has insisted the defender does have a big future at the Emirates Stadium.

Speaking after Saliba completed a loan move to Nice, the Arsenal boss said: “We signed a big project that we had some issues with because he’s not played enough football over the past 18 months and at that age, and in the development phase he is at, that is crucial.

“I was always very conscious when he came back, when he didn’t do the step that he had to before joining us, that to start a relationship with a new manager, a new club, new team-mates where he is not having any game time is really difficult and I think it is damaging for the future.

“I want to protect the player that we signed and the future we have alongside him and the best way to do that is to give him minutes to play.

William Saliba

“He has been really good, it has been a difficult few months for him to cope with that situation but I see the development that he has made, the progression that he has shown over the months and now he is ready to compete. He is going to a really strong league as well, a league he knows really well, he has experience [there] and he needs to play as many games as possible to be ready for us from next season.”

He added: “He will come back for pre-season and he will be with us, and hopefully he will come back after playing a number of games and [with] his performances raising and his development progressing in the right way. That is why we made that decision.

“I know that sometimes it is difficult to explain or understand after the money the club spent bringing him in, sending him on loan, but a lot of things have happened to him, he is a long-term player for us and we need to protect him as well.

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“Giving him three or four games is not enough for him, he needs much more than that but what has happened over the past 18 months, he has gone through some personal problems as well that we have to try to help him, and stay as close as possible to him, and now he needs to play, play and play and enjoy his profession as well.

“In order for him to do that I think we have found the right club with him, he is very happy to go there right now and hopefully he can enjoy his football and be ready for us next season.”


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