Big Midweek: Arsenal v Porto, mindless McGinn, Luton, Manchester United manager targets past v present

Matt Stead
Inter manager Simone Inzaghi, Aston Villa midfielder John McGinn and Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta
Some midweek, this

There is league action of Champions, Europa, Conference and Premier variety to preview; Arsenal, John McGinn and a Man Utd manager target have work to do.


Game to watch – Arsenal v Porto
Mikel Arteta could not have requested better preparation for Arsenal’s Champions League last-16 second leg against Porto.

Like England arranging pre-tournament friendlies against countries from the same continent as their World Cup group-stage opponents, the Gunners happened to host obstinate opposition intent on wasting as much time and making proceedings as tetchy as possible before hosting obstinate opposition intent on wasting as much time and making proceedings as tetchy as possible.

It was the second time this season that Brentford’s tactics against Arsenal directly resulted in the ball being in play for under 50 minutes. It was barely above that in Portugal when the Gunners were frustrated into losing both their nerve and the initiative in this tie. The 22 fouls they made in the first leg against Porto is at least seven more than they have committed in any other match this campaign and the most they have made in a single game since January 2020.

It was also one of only two fixtures Arsenal have trailed in this calendar year: the Gunners went behind in the 94th minute against Porto and the 80th in the FA Cup against Liverpool. They have spent about six times longer being 6-0 up than they have one or two-nil down.

Martin Odegaard described the Brentford victory as “good practice” as Arsenal “had to deal with a lot of different situations, a lot of time-wasting” and “we had to control our emotions”. Arteta referenced how “we have played these kind of games many times in the Premier League” and the Gunners are in little doubt as to what awaits.

But the manager was right to stress that Arsenal are “certainly going to have to tweak a few things to generate much more than what we did against them” and must “do more of the things that we can control better than we did a few weeks ago”. They played into Porto’s hands in the first leg in uncharacteristically naive fashion but even more stark was how little they created in such a fragmented game.

Arsenal held their nerve at the weekend after a long stretch of dominant and brilliant attacking performances; it was a welcome show of grit, determination and focus that they must replicate on Tuesday. Maybe play Jorginho this time.

Arsenal midfielder Jorginho receives instructions from Mikel Arteta.
Jorginho receives instructions from Mikel Arteta.


Player to watch – John McGinn
It remains to be seen precisely how McGinn would describe a match which could grant Aston Villa their first European competition quarter-final since 1998, but going off his performance in “probably, in a league fixture, the most important game in the club’s recent history,” supporters might hope he plays it down a little.

McGinn was far from alone in ranging from ineffective to infuriating awful against Spurs but he provided the exclamation mark on their existential shout into the deep abyss. A straight red card rules him out of any further important Premier League escapades for the time being but might actually increase his chances of facing Ajax.

The captain played about half an hour of the goalless draw in the Netherlands, having been rested for the more crucial league assignment. That obviously went about as well as Unai Emery’s switch to a back five, which might not be repeated when Ajax visit after their own disappointing home result at the weekend: a last-gasp draw with mid-table Fortuna Sittard.

There will be no Ezri Konsa due to his red card in the first leg, after which Emery sounded content to take parity back to their imperious Villa Park home. Seeing how thoroughly Spurs breached it might have undermined that plan somewhat but they remain favourites to win both the tie and the competition for a reason.


Manager to watch – Simone Inzaghi
Poor Arsenal seem to think they are calendar year kings. Inter have won all 13 of their games in 2024 so far, scoring 33 goals, conceding five, keeping nine clean sheets and even winning a trophy.

Any suggestion that last season’s Champions League final and Coppa Italia victory were flashes in the pan have been roasted by Simone Inzaghi, whose net spend of about -£50m for the season has unexpectedly transformed them into one of the continent’s most fearsome forces.

There is certainly a flavour of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid about them, making their visit to the Metropolitano Stadium even more enticing after that narrow victory in the first leg.

Inter restricted Atleti to zero shots on target at the San Siro three weeks ago before Marko Arnautovic granted them a slender advantage which is sure to be protected at all costs on Wednesday. Both teams have played four games since: Inter won each and conceded one goal, while Atleti have won one and conceded eight.

Simeone does historically make it past the Champions League last-16 more often that not but this is not a vintage Atletico side and Inter are better by most metrics. Inzaghi could usurp him for good as Europe’s best pound-for-pound knockout and defensive coach, taking his place as a perennial Manchester United manager candidate and even possible Jurgen Klopp replacement at Liverpool.


Team to watch – Luton
An incongruous spot of Barclays to be found in the midst of Gazprom, Heineken and Thursday night frivolities, Luton and Bournemouth will renew the diametric opposite of hostilities when their postponed meeting takes place in midweek.

Eighty-eight days will have passed since the initial game was abandoned after Tom Lockyer’s collapse and it is a blessed relief that the Luton captain is still with us and probably on night feeds which he can hopefully schedule around an evening kick-off.

There should be a convivial atmosphere at the Vitality Stadium considering how phenomenally the two clubs dealt with such trying circumstances, the sort which inevitably pull people together. But when the whistle blows Luton will know business needs tending to.

Far bigger question marks hang over their Premier League future, what with the prospect of points deductions to two of their relegation rivals, but this game in hand has been in the back pocket for long enough to keep the Hatters in theoretical touching distance. They are three points behind Nottingham Forest and any win would lift them above Nuno Espirito Santo’s side on goal difference and out of the relegation zone.

Rob Edwards will hope to harness the momentum from a 96th-minute equaliser at Crystal Palace, but Bournemouth will have their say after their own late point-stealing weekend shenanigans.


EFL game to watch – Take your pick
Middlesbrough’s trip to Birmingham has understandably not been deemed worthy of capturing on camera so we are instead left with two fixtures from the top of League One: Bolton (third) v Oxford (seventh) on Tuesday, before Peterborough (fourth) v Stevenage (sixth) 24 hours later.

That second game is catching the eye, considering Darren Ferguson and Steve Evans first met as managers way back in 2007. The former was obviously Peterborough boss then and is currently in his fourth separate Posh spell, while the latter endured the second-shortest stint of his coaching career at London Road, leaving after less than a year in charge in 2019 to obviously be replaced by Darren Ferguson.


UEFA coefficient game to watch – West Ham v Freiburg
Perhaps the most important game of all in answering the question: Will the Premier League get a fifth place in next season’s Champions League?