The Europa League semifinal draw was conducted Friday afternoon at UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, and it yielded the one and only clash of giants that it possibly could have: Arsenal vs. Atletico Madrid.
The two favorites remaining in the competition, one who desperately needs to win it and another who already has twice over the past 10 years, seemed to be on a collision course for the final. But they’ll meet one round early in a tie that wouldn’t look out of place in the Champions League knockout stages.
And Arsenal, with the Premier League top four out of sight, will have to win it to keep 2018-19 Champions League hopes alive.
To call it the nightmare scenario for both clubs would be hyperbolic. But it’s the scenario they hoped to avoid. And if past editions of the Europa League were valid precedent, it was a scenario that could be avoided.
Look no further than last season, when Manchester United played its way back in the Champions League by rolling through Saint-Etienne, Rostov, Anderlecht, Celta Vigo and Ajax. There were no recent Champions League finalists that appeared as obstacles. No tie in which United was anything but a definitive favorite
This time around, though, for Arsenal, at the semifinal stage, one appeared. And the Gunners will be underdogs.
In the other semifinal, Marseille will play Red Bull Salzburg in a group stage rematch.
Both semifinal first legs will be played on Thursday, April 26. Both second legs will be played on Thursday, May 3.
Arsenal will host the first leg against Atletico Madrid at the Emirates, with the second leg a week later at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano. Marseille will get the first leg at home in its matchup, with the return leg in Salzburg.
Arsenal advanced to the semifinals after surviving a brief second-leg scare from CSKA Moscow. In the end, it went through as a 6-3 aggregate winner.
Atletico Madrid advanced despite a less brief scare from Sporting CP. The Spaniards won the first leg 2-0 at home, but had to hold on at 2-1 after conceding a first-half goal in Portugal.
Marseille is one of two semifinalists to have staged a memorable comeback in the quarters. Down 2-0 after conceding early in the second leg, it outscored RB Leipzig 5-1 over the last 85 minutes of the tie to clinch a dramatic victory.
And finally, Red Bull Salzburg is the biggest surprise. Its the biggest underdog. By most estimations, the Austrian side was one of the weakest to qualify for the round of 16, and perhaps even the round of 32. But it has knocked off Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio to reach the semifinals. It scored three goals in 247 seconds, a Europa League record, in its quarterfinal second leg to turn a 5-3 aggregate deficit into a 6-5 upset of Lazio.
Of the four, Atletico Madrid remains the best team, the most accomplished in Europe, and the favorite. But Arsenal is a clear second-favorite, and the winner of the high-profile semifinal tie will be the one to beat in the final.
That final will be played Wednesday, May 16 at the Stade de Lyon in France.
And there will be no waltz to it. No leisurely stroll to Lyon. No straightforward path to the 2018-19 Champions League for Arsenal. The Gunners, more so than Manchester United a year ago, will have to earn their title.
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