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Martinelli must start in Prague if Arsenal are to save their season

21:13 BST 11/04/2021
Gabriel Martinelli Arsenal 2020-21
The 19-year-old showed exactly why he is so highly-rated against Sheffield United and now must be given a chance in Thursday's Europa League clash

Match statistics: Sheffield United 0-3 Arsenal

He may have only had 30 touches, but Gabriel Martinelli showed at Bramall Lane why he simply has to start for Arsenal in their season defining game against Slavia Prague on Thursday.

The clamour for the Brazilian teenager to be brought into the starting line-up by Mikel Arteta has been growing by the week, but up to now the Gunners boss had resisted the urge to unleash the teenager.

But Thursday’s night’s insipid attacking performance in the first leg of the Europa League quarter-final prompted a change of heart, with Martinelli handed his first start since the 0-0 draw with Manchester United on January 30.

And the 19-year-old showcased exactly why he has to be one of the first names on the teamsheet for Arsenal’s make for break game in the Czech capital this week, scoring the second goal in a 3-0 win which moved them back up to ninth in the table, seven points behind sixth-placed Liverpool

This was not even one of Martinelli’s better performances and he understandably looked a bit rusty at times, given his lack of meaningful game time in recent months.

But he just always looks like making things happen when he is on the pitch, something that you cannot really say about some of Arsenal’s other attacking players this season.

Willian was preferred to the Brazilian in the first leg against Slavia and produced the type of display that has littered his stay in north London following his move from Chelsea last summer.

The 32-year-old offered no goal threat, with his tendency when in possession to go backwards, rather than trying to take his full-back on and get in on goal.

Martinelli, however, was the exact opposite against Sheffield United. He may have been starved of the ball at times, but when he did get it his first thought was always to try and get in on goal and Arsenal were much better for it.

In the first half he had just 17 touches of the ball, yet he still managed to get three shots away, one of which was saved and another deflected behind for a corner with the keeper beaten.

There was a directness about Arsenal that has been lacking in recent weeks, and he was at the heart of it.

The most surprising aspect of the opening 45 minutes was when Arsenal did find a breakthrough, Martinelli was not directly involved.

But it was still a goal of the highest quality, with Alexandre Lacazette, Bukayo Saka and Dani Ceballos all combining superbly before Lacazette provided the finishing touch for his 15th goal of the season.

The Frenchman was once again leading the line for the Gunners in the absence of captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who did not travel due to illness, and ensured the visitors did not miss their skipper.

Whether Aubameyang returns on in Prague remains to be seen, but each of Lacazette’s last six goals have come when the Gabon international has not been involved.

Arsenal ended the first half in complete control and they continued to dominate after the restart, with Martinelli killing the game off 20 minutes from time when he showed his poacher’s instincts to fire home after Nicolas Pepe’s shot had been saved.

Lacazette then completed a fine evening’s work with his second and Arsenal’s third, sliding a fine finish past Aaron Ramsdale after being played in by a fabulous Thomas Partey pass.

Arsenal will not find things so easy in Prague on Thursday night, but this was the perfect warm-up to a game that will define their season.

The 1-1 draw in the first leg leaves them no room for error and Arteta will be well aware of the fall-out that will come his way should things go wrong in the Czech Republic.

But this should be the blueprint for how he approaches this game. His team had a purpose when they went forward and they had an energy that has been lacking so often during this disappointing campaign.

And Martinelli was at the heart of it. Arteta has been calling for patience when it comes to Arsenal’s prodigious young talent, but the time to take off the shackles has arrived.