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Arsenal can gain first-leg advantage over Atletico

Europa League semi-final first leg
BT Sport 2, 8.05pm Thursday


Arsenal had hoped to avoid Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semi-final draw but they can rise to the challenge and defeat the La Liga powerhouses, boosting their chances of giving the departing Arsene Wenger a triumphant sendoff.

It might have been easier for Arsenal to face Atletico in the final but the timing of the first leg may be in their favour because the Spanish side are without at least two, and possibly three, important first-team regulars.

Full-backs Filipe Luis and Juanfran have been ruled out through injury and powerful centre-forward Diego Costa is a major doubt having sustained a hamstring injury during the quarter-final clash away to Sporting, which Atletico lost 1-0 but still qualified 2-1 on aggregate.

Atletico have led the Europa League outright market since they were parachuted into the competition by finishing third behind Roma and Chelsea in Champions League Group C.

They cruised through to the last eight with easy aggregate victories over FC Copenhagen (5-1) and Lokomotiv Moscow (8-1) but were made to work hard by Sporting and the match against Arsenal looks another step up in class.

Diego Simeone's side are second in La Liga but have gone off the boil in recent weeks, winning only three of their last eight league fixtures.

Atleti have taken just one point from their last four La Liga away matches and did not play with any great intensity when drawing 0-0 at home to Betis on Sunday.

It is entirely possible they have held something back for their trip to the Emirates but anything less than their best could see them punished by an Arsenal side who have shown that they are capable of raising the bar for big knockout matches.

Towards the end of last season's FA Cup they delivered two excellent performances to despatch Manchester City (2-1 after extra-time) and Chelsea (2-1).

And they came up with the goods in this season's EFL Cup semi-final, registering a 2-1 aggregate victory over Chelsea.

Offensively, Arsenal possess the talent to trouble the best defences in Europe and Atletico might be a little unsettled at the back with two of their regular defenders ruled out.

Arsenal need to be tactically astute and mindful of the counter-attacking threat posed by Antoine Griezmann.

But Griezmann has had an up-and-down campaign and usually plays much better with Costa in the side.

During the 11 La Liga games they have started together, Griezmann has scored 12 goals. In Griezmann's other 19 league appearances this term, he has scored just seven.

Costa is expected to be fully fit when the teams lock horns in Madrid next Thursday.

However, he hasn't played any football for two weeks and his likely absence from the starting line up in London is a big reason for punters to side with a Gunners home win.

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