Arsenal's Arteta backs struggling Willian to come good

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(Reuters) - Criticism of Arsenal midfielder Willian after a few sub-par performances was not unfair but the Brazilian will soon return to top form, his manager Mikel Arteta said on Wednesday.

Willian, 32, arrived on a free transfer from Chelsea last year and was expected to add experience and firepower to a youthful Arsenal attack.

He has failed to display the form he showed during his seven years at Stamford Bridge, however, managing just three assists in 24 games in all competitions and failing to score.

"I won't say it (criticism) is unfair. Expectations of Willian are really high in terms of the goals he can score, assists he can create," Arteta told reporters ahead of Thursday's Europa League last-32 first leg against Benfica.

"We have to protect him. What he's doing at the moment, the way he's training, the way he's willing to give everything to the team is what I demand. Whether he's successful in the game is another matter, but it will come with the quality he has."

Benfica lie fourth in the Portuguese league, 13 points behind leaders Sporting, but Arteta is expecting a stern test in the game which will be played in Rome due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"They are a high rhythm team with a high press. They have aggressive, attacking players who are dangerous in the final third when they find space," the Spaniard said. "They're going to be a really difficult opponent."

Arsenal midfielder Thomas Partey will miss the match but full back Kieran Tierney is in the squad after recovering from a leg injury.

(Reporting by Arvind Sriram in Bengaluru, editing by Ed Osmond)