Mikel Arteta appreciates the pressure is always on at Arsenal as he prepares his squad for a pivotal game against Benfica that will shape the remainder of their season.

Arsenal go into the second leg against their Portuguese opponents with the Europa League last-32 tie delicately balanced following a 1-1 draw in Rome. 

The English club did grab an away goal in the first meeting, though are without the benefit of home advantage for the return fixture. Due to coronavirus travel restrictions, the game is to be played in Greece. 

Out of both domestic cups and languishing down in 10th place in the Premier League, Europe offers the Gunners their last chance of success in Arteta's first full season in charge. 

"I always feel that it (pressure) is [on me], every time you're playing in a competition and you can go out you know the consequences and with this club [the aim] is always to win the competition that you are in, so that doesn't really change much," Arteta said.

"It's a big season and a really important [game], mentally and confidence-wise.  

"It's going to dictate if we're in another competition or not for a few more weeks. This is really what we need. It's a really tough opponent.  

"It's a Champions League team who have been playing in these types of games for many years with a manager with huge experience. For us, it's a final."

With an 11-point gap to fourth-placed West Ham and just 13 games remaining, it seems improbable that Arsenal can qualify for next season's Champions League through the domestic route. 

The Europa League, therefore, takes on added importance. They have won on each of their previous two visits to Greece as well, albeit both against Olympiacos, including a victory in this same competition a year ago. 

"I think while mathematically everything is possible, in football you have to try so hard," Arteta said. "We're going to do that in the league for sure.

"It's true that the Europa League gives you a completely different route and is a competition that we want to carry on playing, and try to win it.  

"Tomorrow is another opportunity to make a step forward. The better we are in the Europa League, the better we're going to be performing in the league and vice-versa. We need to be alive in both competitions."

Arteta revealed Thomas Partey is "very close" to a return from a hamstring injury, meaning the midfielder could feature against Benfica. Rob Holding, however, is ruled out due concussion protocols. 

Rob Holding has signed a new contract at Arsenal running until June 2024, the Premier League club have confirmed.

The centre-back's terms contain the option to extend for another year and his new deal is a reward for overcoming injury to establish himself as a first-team fixture under Mikel Arteta.

Holding suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament against Manchester United in December 2018 but returned to the fray last season to lift his second FA Cup in Arsenal colours.

The 25-year-old has made 16 appearances so far in 2020-21, taking him to 96 overall for the Gunners, who he joined from Bolton Wanderers in July 2016.

"Since I started as manager, I have been hugely impressed with Rob’s contribution to the club and the dressing room, on and off the pitch," Arteta told Arsenal's official website.

"The quality of his work every day on the training pitches is excellent and he is translating this into consistently high performances in matches. 

"We all know Rob’s quality, which he has shown in his displays during the intense moments of those two FA Cup final victories.

"We are all very happy that Rob has signed a new contract, he is very popular with all the players and staff, and we’re looking forward to watching him continue to grow with us in the coming years.”

Holding the opposition at bay

Holding has certainly led by example on the field for an Arsenal side not always noted for their defensive resolve.

His 58 clearances in the Premier League this season are comfortably the best return in the squad as Kieran Tierney comes in next on 42.

In terms of headed clearances, Holding's 40 are nearly double the next best overall from fellow centre-back Gabriel (23).

Holding ranks second among his team-mates for tackles (20, behind Dani Ceballos on 25) and blocks (10, behind Gabriel on 12).

He has also made 14 interceptions (joint fifth) and won possession on 72 occasions (joint third) and is yet to make an error leading to either a goal or a shot.

In other good news for Arteta, Gabriel Martinelli is set to resume full training in the coming days as Crystal Palace prepare to visit Emirates Stadium in the Premier League on Thursday.

Martinelli withdraw from the FA Cup win over Newcastle United last weekend after turning his ankle during the warm-up.

Liverpool put seven past Crystal Palace and Manchester United brushed aside Leeds United with six goals on a bonkers weekend of Premier League action.

Reigning champions Liverpool are the first side to sit top of the tree at Christmas in three successive years since last achieving the feat themselves between 1978 and 1980 under Bob Paisley.

While a couple of scorelines stood out, it was business as usual for Jamie Vardy as he scored for the 11th time this season in Leicester City's 2-0 win at Tottenham, making some history in the process.

With the help of Opta, we take a look at some of the more unusual stats to have emerged over the weekend.

Palace plundered as rampant Reds cut loose

There was a magnificent seven for Liverpool at Selhurst Park in the early kick-off on Saturday, the reigning Premier League champions running up the score to move further clear at the summit.

It was the first time Liverpool have scored seven in an away game in the top flight since March 1991. Roberto Firmino bagged two of them, a year on from his last league brace for Jurgen Klopp's side.

Poor Palace, then. They had not conceded more than five at home in any competition since a 6-1 defeat to the Reds in August 1994.

They were 3-0 down at home by half-time for only the sixth time in the Premier League era. However, three of those occasions have come against Liverpool (also in August 1994 and October 2016).

Vardy starts the Christmas party early

Vardy likes Tottenham. Maybe not as much as certain alcopop drinks and kicking corner flags at Bramall Lane, but the striker does seem to relish a trip to Spurs.

His goal in Leicester City's 2-0 triumph on Sunday means he has completed the set when it comes to Spurs, having now scored against them at White Hart Lane, Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

He is the first player in Premier League history to score away to a specific opponent at three different grounds.

A Toby Alderweireld own goal made sure of all three points for the Foxes, who will be in the top two places of the table at Christmas in consecutive seasons for the first time in their history.

Next up for Brendan Rodgers' side: third-place Manchester United at home on Boxing Day.

Red Devils put on a (first-half) show

Man United and cross-Pennine rivals Leeds served up a pre-Christmas treat at Old Trafford in a game that saw Scott McTominay score the Premier League's quickest ever brace inside just 170 seconds.

A further three goals followed before half-time, making it the fourth game in the competition this season to see as many as five goals scored in the opening 45 minutes, along with Liverpool v Leeds, Aston Villa v Liverpool and Man United v Tottenham.

To put that into some context, five or more goals were scored in the first half of just three matches in the whole of 2019-20. 

The rampant hosts added another couple of goals to their tally in the second half, including a strike from Daniel James to end a 33-game wait since his last Premier League goal, a run spanning some 16 months.

James was also - harshly, in the view of boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer - booked for simulation, making him only the second player in the Premier League this season to be cautioned for diving, along with Wolves' Adama Traore.

A bit of Mina time

Mikel Arteta's woes continue following an eighth defeat in 14 Premier League matches for Arsenal this season, this most recent setback coming at the hands of the under-fire manager's former club Everton.

Carlo Ancelotti's side took the lead through a Rob Holding own goal, the centre-back becoming the first Arsenal player to put into his own net in this Premier League fixture since, of all people, Arteta in April 2014.

That is the third own goal Arsenal have scored in the top flight this term - only in 2002-03 (four) and 2011-12 (five) have they scored more in a single season.

Nicolas Pepe temporarily levelled up for the Gunners from the penalty spot, only for Yerry Mina to head in what proved to be the winner in the 45th minute.

The timing of the goal should come as little surprise given that the last four league goals scored by the ex-Barcelona man have come in that exact minute, including stoppage time.

Only Chris Eagles has scored as many consecutive goals in the same minute before, notching four times in the 90th between 2007 and 2011.

Willian proved with his debut performance against Fulham just why Arsenal were so keen to sign him from Chelsea, according to team-mate Rob Holding.

The Brazil international joined Arsenal on a three-year deal last month after his Chelsea contract expired and made a big impact in his first Premier League outing for the club.

He set up fellow debutant Gabriel and captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for the Gunners' second and third goals at Craven Cottage after Alexandre Lacazette's early opener.

In doing so, Willian became the first player to assist two goals on his Premier League debut for Arsenal since Ray Parlour in August 1992 against Liverpool.

Holding was impressed by what he saw from the winger in Arsenal's opening day 3-0 win, while also reserving praise for fellow new recruit Gabriel, who made a difference at both ends.

"I know Willian from when we've played Chelsea," Holding told the Evening Standard. "I know he's got all the ability so it's nice to have him in your team.

"He proved [against Fulham] why we signed him and Gabriel was also solid as a rock. He won everything aerially and finished off with a nice goal as well."

Arsenal ended last season by winning the FA Cup and have picked up from where they left off, beating Liverpool in the Community Shield before their weekend triumph.

Holding played a full part in all three of those games and is hopeful of keeping that positive momentum going under first-team manager Mikel Arteta.

"To win with the clean sheet is always nice," he said. "We wanted to make a little bit of a statement in the first game of the season.

"The first one to kick us off. Other teams will have been watching and seen the result before they went in, so to get a good 3-0 win away from home is a good start.

"Finishing the season with a trophy and starting this one with the Community Shield win... we've got a load of confidence coming in and now we want to have a good run and go for it."

Next up for Arsenal is the visit of London rivals West Ham on Saturday.

Sead Kolasinac is facing several weeks on the sidelines after Arsenal confirmed he suffered ankle ligament damage against Manchester City.

Kolasinac hobbled off in the first half of his side's 3-0 defeat to City last weekend.

In an injury update on their official website on Friday, Arsenal revealed the 26-year-old defender is "aiming to return to full training in January".

Arsenal are already without fellow left-back Kieran Tierney until March after the Scotland international underwent surgery on his dislocated shoulder earlier this week.

And in a further blow for the Gunners ahead of Saturday's Premier League meeting with Everton, Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Mesut Ozil are all fitness doubts.

Bellerin (hamstring) and Holding (knee) played no part in the defeat to City, while Ozil injured his right foot prior to being withdrawn in the second half.

Dani Ceballos is aiming to return to training next week after missing Arsenal's last six Premier League games, while Granit Xhaka is available for selection after recovering from the concussion he sustained against West Ham.

Arsenal are 10th in the Premier League ahead of their trip to Goodison Park, seven points adrift of the top four.

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