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Jack Wilshere stars as Arsenal reach Europa League knockouts
Last Updated: 03/11/17 10:01am
On the day he was left out of the England squad, Jack Wilshere's performance against Red Star Belgrade showed both Gareth Southgate and Arsene Wenger must trust him on the big stage again.
As well as Arsenal's progression to the knockout phase, the midfielder's display in Thursday's Europa League stalemate at the Emirates was the standout highlight for the home support.
Here, we examine his performance - and that of his team-mates…
Wilshere ready for return to big stage
It is a strange situation for Wenger to be urging England boss Southgate to pick Wilshere for England and yet continue to place him in his 'Europa League' category for Arsenal.
As Southgate argued on Thursday, after revealing Wilshere wouldn't be a part of his group to face Germany and Brazil, why should he select a player not currently able to get into Arsenal's first team?
But it is hard to imagine England travelling to the World Cup next summer without Wilshere in their ranks. And it is hard to imagine the midfielder being out of the Premier League frame for much longer with Arsenal, given his current form and fitness.
On Thursday night, he was the home side's key man. The attacks - particularly in the second half - revolved around his playmaking. From weaving into the box and being denied a penalty to having a shot cleared off the line and teeing up Theo Walcott for a powerful header at goal, the 25-year-old was instrumental in Arsenal's best moments.
Wilshere's Euro return
Jack Wilshere made his first start at the Emirates in European competition since August 2014 (1-0 v Besiktas in Champions League qualifying).
No player on the pitch could match his tally of three key passes, five dribbles or his passing accuracy of 91 per cent.
It's the kind of creativity, guile and accuracy in possession Arsenal are likely to need at some stage during their looming trip to Manchester City on Sunday - and Wilshere looks ready for his return to the big stage.
Arsenal's rotation policy keeps it fresh
Wenger is keen on talking up the strength in depth he has at his disposal, even suggesting in his programme notes that training ground games between his first-choice picks and what has become his Europa League XI are tight affairs.
But while he may be overstating his strength in depth, his second string have given him a major boost by navigating the Europa League group phase while allowing key men to be rested for Premier League battles to come.
Once again there were 11 changes from the side which beat Swansea in the Premier League last weekend for this Thursday night clash with Red Star Belgrade. Out went Alexandre Lacazette, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. In came Walcott, Wilshere and Olivier Giroud, while Mohamed Elneny took up a centre back role and youngsters Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles ran the flanks.
The result was a performance of a team missing the cutting edge in the final third and one too easily exposed on the counter-attack by this pacey opposition. Perhaps a lack of sharpness was to blame for the hosts but, conducted by playmaker Guelor Kanga, Red Star broke with speed through wingers Slavoljub Srnic and Nemanja Radonjlic and if it wasn't for a slip and a poor touch from those two respectively, either could have found the net in the opening 45.
In the second period, Arsenal got a foothold, with Wilshere taking authority at the heart of the home side's best moves. Only an acrobatic block on the line from Damien Le Tallec denied him a first Gunners goal since May 2015, while there were penalty shouts and a Giroud blast wide, a wayward Walcott header and a strike off target from Francis Coquelin.
The winner didn't come but the job was done, a 0-0 draw enough to put Arsenal into the final 32, allowing them to focus on domestic matters until the New Year.
Macey shows potential
Rotation also offers the chance to impress and Matt Macey took his chance against Red Star. He needed all of his 6ft5in height to finger-tip Radonjic's header onto the bar on 37 minutes; the young goalkeeper had slipped seconds earlier but showed the impressive agility boss Wenger had praised him for ahead of his Arsenal debut in the League Cup last month.
Factor in the clean sheet and a handful of tidy stops and it was a good night's work for the Bath-born 23-year-old keeper. It could have been very different, of course, had his scuffed clearance on 14 minutes directly at Richmond Boakye been punished.
But Macey, with David Ospina out injured and Petr Cech rested, showed Wenger he can be trusted in the cup competitions.
Focus on City
With the Europa League group stage navigated, Wenger's attention can now turn to finding a way past Manchester City this weekend. It's an ominous task - the Gunners haven't beaten a top-six side since that famous 2-0 win at City in 2015 and Pep Guardiola's men have made the best ever start to a Premier League campaign.
Wenger will hope the return of Ozil, Lacazette and Sanchez will bring the cutting edge they were missing against Red Star. They'll certainly need to be more clinical and the changed XI must be far more cautious about counter-attacks. They won't be let off for similar lapses at the Etihad.
But while City's players must recover from their exertions in the impressive Champions League win over Napoli, the Arsenal XI selected on Sunday will go into the contest fresh and in form themselves after firing five past Everton last time out. It adds an intriguing element to the contest.
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