Mesut Özil

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Ozil finally earning Emery’s trust at Arsenal

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There has been one constant in a month of fluctuating fortunes for Arsenal, and few could have seen it coming.

[ MORE: Lloris, Son give Spurs lead over Man City (video) ]

Mesut Ozil, all of a sudden, is a mainstay in the team and is set to start for the sixth straight game when Arsenal plays Napoli in the first leg of the Europa League quarterfinals on Thursday.

No other attacking player has taken the field for Arsenal as much in that period. It is Ozil’s longest unbroken run in the team under Unai Emery, the Arsenal manager whose preference for a high-energy approach seemed to conflict with the German playmaker’s natural style.

Only a few months ago, there seemed no way back for Ozil, who endured several spells out of the team with Emery publicly acknowledging that, for certain games, he simply needed players who worked harder.

Ozil can be a divisive player, with his supporters pointing to his vision and ability to conjure chances out of nothing while his critics question his commitment, attitude and work rate.

[ MORE: Harry Kane could miss rest of season, says Pochettino ]

But just as the season has reached its defining stage, Emery is starting to lean heavily on the club’s top money-earner.

“He is playing like a team player,” Emery said. “He’s working very well, playing very well. He’s helping us. I’m very happy with him.”

Ozil certainly seems to be putting in more effort in matches. So much so that Emery trusted Ozil to start in an away Premier League last weekend for the first time since Dec. 26.

It didn’t go too well – Arsenal lost 1-0 at Everton on Sunday and Ozil was substituted in the 74th minute after a largely anonymous display – but it was still another signal of the growing harmony between the club’s manager and its most high-profile player.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Spurs’ victory over Man City ]

Arsenal heads into the Europa League’s last eight potentially needing to win the competition to secure a return to the Champions League next season. Finishing in the top four of the Premier League would also guarantee that and Arsenal is currently in fifth place, locked in a tight battle with Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United to claim the two qualifying spots behind Liverpool and Manchester City.

Five points separate Chelsea in third place and United in sixth, with Chelsea having played a game more than its three rivals.

Ozil’s five-match run in the team started in the 3-1 Europa League loss to Rennes in the first leg of the last 16. But Arsenal’s 3-0 victory in the second leg kept alive Emery’s bid to win the competition for the fourth time, after doing so with Sevilla in three straight years from 2014.

Napoli, which is second in the Italian league, won the now-defunct UEFA Cup – the precursor to the Europa League – in 1989. It is the club’s only major European honor.

Emery raves about Ozil, Ramsey as Arsenal goes 3rd

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Unai Emery has answered a lot of off-the-field questions about Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey this year, so we imagine he loved talking about the two for their on-field exploits.

Ozil has struggled to stay in Emery’s side despite his big paycheck, and Ramsey would not sign a new deal with Arsenal and is headed to Juventus on a mega watt deal of his own.

[ RECAP: Arsenal 2-0 Newcastle ]

Asked about two star players from Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat of Newcastle on Monday, a win which pushed the Gunners ahead of rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Emery was happy to gush about both. From the BBC:

“We were improving little by little and our first goal helped us a lot. Mesut Ozil has quality, when he can find the best performance for the team, he is playing like we want with the system and how tactically we want. He is giving us his quality.

“I think Aaron Ramsey is happy, he is helping us and is playing with a very good performance and scoring. Each energy from the players is very important for us and he is doing that. We are at the most important moment of the season.”

So what’s next? Emery is careful not to aim too high considering the congested schedule for all Top Four challengers, and the immense skill on display at each club.

“We are making progess in the table but we know it is difficult, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United are going to win a lot of games.”

Watch Live: Arsenal v. Manchester United

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Top Four placement is on the line when Manchester United visits Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

The two sides drew at Old Trafford in December before United knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup at the Emirates Stadium one month later.

Mesut Ozil is again in the Starting XI for Arsenal, and will meet his match in United’s Paul Pogba.

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Leno, Maitland-Niles, Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal, Kolasinac, Xhaka, Ramsey, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette. Subs: Cech, Mustafi, Elneny, Guendouzi, Suarez, Iwobi, Nketiah.

Manchester United: De Gea, Young, Lindelof, Smalling, Shaw, Matic, Fred, Pogba, Dalot, Lukaku, Rashford. Subs: Romero, Bailly, Rojo, McTominay, Pereira, Martial, Greenwood.

Emery on Mesut Ozil: ‘The key is in his hands’

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Mesut Ozil’s continued absence at Arsenal has baffled many and it is quite clear Unai Emery doesn’t see the German playmaker fitting into his plans.

But the Gunners boss has challenged Ozil to grab the bull by the horns, in as many words, and wants the 30-year-old (the highest-paid player in Arsenal’s history) to get back to full fitness as soon as possible.

Ahead of Arsenal’s UEFA Europa League round of 32 second leg against BATE Borisov on Thursday (Arsenal trail 1-0 from the first leg in Belarus), Emery gave an update on Ozil’s progress.

“The key is in his hands and he is working very well this week, ” Emery said. “He needs to be consistent in training and for matches, without injury or being sick. Without that we can see the best Mesut with us.”

Ozil last played for Arsenal against Cardiff City on Jan. 29 and before that he went a month without playing from late December until late January. He’s been out with a combination of small injuries and illnesses, while Emery has also chosen not to select him at all in some matchday squads.

Do Arsenal miss him? The stats suggest the Gunners are a better team without Ozil and you can argue that they are better balanced without him. This season they’ve only won 56 percent of the 18 games Ozil has played in compared to 65 percent of 20 games without him.

Emery’s strong stance on Ozil not fitting into his philosophy seems to have focused the rest of the squad, but now seems like a good time to try and find a spot for the mercurial talent in the lineup.

The likes of Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been used in wide attacking roles by Emery in recent weeks but with Ozil now having a full week of training under his belt, surely he will be used against BATE, Southampton, Bournemouth and Tottenham in Arsenal’s next four games.

Having a fit and focused Ozil back in the team will be like having a new signing for Arsenal, but it is still unclear exactly where he will slot in. In Emery’s 3-4-3 formation, his role as a central playmaker has disappeared and the best chance he has of playing a pivotal role this season is if Emery changes to a 3-4-2-1 formation with Lacazette and Ozil underneath Aubameyang in attack.

Arsenal boss Emery defends team selection after BATE Borisov loss

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Arsenal manager Unai Emery has come out to defend his team selection after losing to BATE Borisov 1-0 in Europa League play on Thursday in Belarus.

Emery dropped playmaker Mesut Ozil in his ongoing feud with the German international, saying before the match that Ozil was a healthy scratch. After the loss, Emery was quick to defend his team selection, going so far as to say his team should have won despite the final scoreline.

“Last week we won and we played with the same players,” Emery said after the game. “For me today there was no difference to the performance. We deserved to win but didn’t get the result.”

“They were very organized defensively and they found the moment in the game. It’s not for one player or another. We can win with every player and lose with the same players.”

Arsenal held 77% possession and out-shot BATE 16-6, but each side picked out just three on target. Emery preached patience on multiple levels, saying his players need to control their emotions, and the fans need to understand that there is still a second leg to go.

“It’s the first match,” said Emery of the situation, with the second leg coming from the Emirates next Thursday. “We are going to play another 90 minutes next week and I’m sure it’s going to be different.

“Our big opportunity is next week at home. Today is not the result we wanted. We deserved more but they worked for this. Next week is going to be different with our supporters.”

Emery continued to talk about his players keeping their cool, and said he spoke with Alexandre Lacazette, who was sent off for a late elbow. “I didn’t see the action [Lacazette’s foul] but we need to control the frustration,” Emery said. “It’s bad news, this red card. Next week we won’t play with [Lacazette]. But it gives chances for another player.”

Ozil could be in contention to come back into the team in Lacazette’s absence, or Emery could turn to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a lone striker up front with a number of changes behind him, potentially including a return for Aaron Ramsey who missed the first leg with a knee problem.