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Granit Xhaka: Arsenal Top-4 Finish Comes 'First' over Winning UEFA Europa League

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2019

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 14: Granit Xhaka of Arsenal gestures during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Arsenal and Stade Rennes at Emirates Stadium on March 14, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

Finishing in the top four of the Premier League is more important to Arsenal than winning this season's UEFA Europa League, at least in the view of Granit Xhaka. 

The Switzerland international midfielder made the statement after the Gunners regained fourth spot with a 1-0 win away to Watford on Monday night. Xhaka spelled out Arsenal's priorities ahead of Thursday's quarter-final second leg against Napoli, per Simon Collings of the London Evening Standard:

"I think we want to stay in the top four — we want to be back in the Champions League. For me, the Premier League is first and after if you can go to the final and take the Europa League, of course, it is nice as well, but for us it is the Premier League first."

Arsenal's desire and need to return to the UEFA Champions League after a two-season hiatus are obvious. Yet Xhaka's comments have reopened the debate about money and prestige over trophies that's defined Arsenal since the club swapped Highbury for the Emirates Stadium back in 2006.

Xhaka has been talking up Arsenal's need to put finishing in the top four ahead of winning the Europa League.
Xhaka has been talking up Arsenal's need to put finishing in the top four ahead of winning the Europa League.Julian Finney/Getty Images

Back in the early years at their new home, then-Gunners boss Arsene Wenger regularly preached the need to finish at least fourth and secure lucrative Champions league football. The riches on offer helped Arsenal accelerate the process of paying down debt for the stadium.

At the same time though, the balancing act left Wenger and the club open to criticism. The Frenchman was seen as valuing what's on the balance sheet over the tangible achievement of winning prizes.

While it was never so simple, there's a certain irony in Xhaka and Arsenal now taking the same party line during the first season since 1996 without Wenger in charge. Wenger was replaced by Unai Emery last summer, despite winning three FA Cups in his last five seasons at the helm.

The first of those cups came in 2014 and ended a nine-year drought without silverware. Ironically, the last of Wenger's record seven FA Cup wins came in 2017, when he also finished fifth and missed out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.

Arsenal often appeared to make choices between going for silverware or the top four during the later years of Wenger's reign.
Arsenal often appeared to make choices between going for silverware or the top four during the later years of Wenger's reign.ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

While not a lot is worth remembering about the Gunners' 2016-17 league campaign, fans still savoured beating Chelsea at Wembley, denying their London rivals a league and cup double, and seeing Arsenal claim a trophy.

Similar feelings would be welcomed if Arsenal win the Europa League. The club fell short at the semi-final stage in Wenger's final season, prolonging a run without a European prize dating back to 1994.

There's added motivation for Arsenal to win again in Europe, since lifting Europa League trophy is another route back into the Champions League. It's surely one reason why Emery was chosen to replace Wenger, given the Spaniard won Europe's second-tier tournament three seasons running with Sevilla.

Emery may take a different view to Xhaka, especially considering Arsenal lead Napoli 2-0 after the first leg. Preserving an aggregate advantage will ensure a semi-final tie against either of La Liga duo Valencia or Villarreal.

UEFA Europa League @EuropaLeague

🔴 Aaron Ramsey finishes off this flowing team move 😍 #UEL | @Arsenal https://t.co/CAb5sFYkNm

UEFA Europa League @EuropaLeague

🧤 THIS save from Alex Meret 👏 #UEL | @sscnapoli https://t.co/OJgfBv90nx

This route may be easier than surviving a four-way tussle with Chelsea, Manchester United and north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur to finish fourth or third in England's top flight.

Xhaka is aware of how tight things are: "We are now in fourth place — two points over (Manchester) United, one game less than Chelsea and one point behind Tottenham — and they play against Manchester City this weekend. This can be a big weekend for us."

While there's an opportunity for Arsenal to secure third, Xhaka and Co. must build on a first clean-sheet away from home all season. However, the Gunners were helped by Hornets striker Troy Deeney being sent off for a swipe at Lucas Torreira early on at Vicarage Road.

Squawka Football @Squawka

Arsenal have kept a Premier League clean sheet away from home for the first time under Unai Emery. They needed to face 10 men to do it. https://t.co/anpFs5A4Iw

Even so, Emery will know the narrow win can breed confidence for tough away trips to face Wolverhampton Wanderers, Leicester City and Burnley before the league calendar concludes.

In the meantime, getting a result in Naples is the priority. It won't be easy, since Napoli are formidable at the Stadio San Paolo, even beating Liverpool and drawing with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League group stage.

Emery will hope his defenders carry the form at Watford into this decisive game:

Squawka Football @Squawka

Shkodran Mustafi won 100% of his seven aerial duels contested against Watford this evening. The most by an Arsenal player without losing a single one in a Premier League game this season. 💪 https://t.co/MvObKQnvmx

Napoli manager Carlo Ancelotti expressed confidence his side can still get past Arsenal, even after the dismal showing in the first leg, per the Daily Mirror's Alex Richards: "We were physically better at the end, some of their players had cramps and that’s another thing we can use in the game."

Ironically, Xhaka can help ease Arsenal fears about losing the fitness battle. He missed the first leg through injury, so should be fresher than some of his teammates, while Emery can welcome back defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who was suspended for the trip to Watford.

Ultimately, Emery won't want to have to choose between the Europa League or the top four. Not when his squad includes enough marquee names to achieve both.

Yet if it comes to it, early exits from both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup, coupled with intense competition from domestic rivals, should make the European prize Emery specialises in winning more appealing.

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