Unai Emery’s dream of a fourth career Europa League trophy is still alive after his Arsenal side clawed back from a 1-0 away loss to win their Round of 32 fixture against Belarusian side BATE Borisov 3-0 on the night, 3-1 on aggregate.
An early own goal settled nerves, followed by two goals from set-pieces – Shkrodan Mustafi with the first and Sokratis Papastathopoulos with the second.
Mesut Ozil returned to the team after missing the first leg through illness, replacing the suspended Alexandre Lacazette after the Frenchman picked up a red in Eastern Europe. As expected, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was unavailable due to flu, with Stephan Lichtsteiner taking the full-backs place.
Both sides took to the field in their home shirts, and the Emirates crowd, despite not being to capacity, was making a lot of noise. There was a knowledge before kick-off that despite a poor performance that seen them come out with a win on home turf, if BATE scored just once away then Arsenal were in real trouble.
Fears were alleviated somewhat early doors when BATE found their own net through Zakhar Volkov after only 4 minutes.
Arsenal started strong, but it was a stroke of luck – or rather the leg of Volkov – that put them level. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang bombed down the left side of the field, and placed a low cross into the goal. There was no teammate to meet the pass, but Volkov, facing goal, sliced the ball past Denis Scherbitski in the BATE goal and the sides were level.
Level score wasn’t good enough for Arsenal so early in the game with plenty of time left to slip up. Concede, and the Gunners would need two more.
In the early stages of the game, BATE seriously threatened – they looked like a side that would very much be capable of coming up with a goal, especially considering the Gunners penchant for not keeping clean sheets.
Dmitri Baga whipped a cross into the centre of Arsenal’s box on 9 minutes towards the head of midfielder Stanislav Dragun, and it was only for a Lichtsteiner off-the-line clearance that Emery’s side weren’t in real trouble with 80 minutes remaining
On 39 minutes, the Gunners found themselves two-to-the-good; and it was the only player to feature in both of BATE’s wins over English teams (Everton in 2009 and Arsenal last week) who put the ball in the net: Shkrodan Mustafi.
Once more, Aubameyang began the move, his good work winning a corner on the left. The returning Ozil sent in a sweet set-piece, and Mustafi rose highest near the penalty spot to plant a header into the bottom corner of the net. Just like that, Arsenal were winning 2-1 on aggregate as half-time approached.
This was basically exactly the position Arsenal wanted to be in at half time, but until they got a 3 they couldn’t feel ‘safe’.
Arsenal had a strong start to the second half, but a worrying spot of pinball in their own box could have left some red faces. BATE got a shot off, but it went straight into the hands of Petr Cech.
Laurent Koscielny had to depart the field on 57 minutes with a calf injury. Hopefully nothing too serious, especially considering how awful of a time the Frenchman has had of late.
Replacing him was the man who would come up with the 3rd goal just minutes later, Sokratis. Henrikh Mkhitaryan made a spiralling run down the right side of the field, and tried to fit a shot into the net from a tight angle. Filipovic slid in for the away team, and effectively prevented a goal but gave away a corner.
Once more, Ozil whipped in a fine delivery from the corner, this time towards the far post – Scherbatski came off his line to clear it, messed up, and the ball fell kindly towards Sokratis who headed into an empty net from a few yards out – a nice intro to proceedings.
The 3rd goal going in allowed Arsenal to take the foot off the pedal a little bit, and it was clear on around 75 minutes that they were, rightly, quite content with winding the clock down.
The second half, following the 3rd goal, was very much so drama free. The game winded down in a relaxing fashion, and Arsenal are into the last 16 of the Europa League.
Next up for Arsenal is another pair of home games, that with 12 league game weeks remaining, are basically must-wins considering how competitive it is at the top of the table. Within the next week, the gunners will come up against a Southampton side that find themselves in the relegation places and a Bournemouth team that appears to be safe with 33 points and recorded a 4-0 battering of Sarri’s Chelsea only 2 weeks ago.
If Arsenal take 6 points from those two games they will hopefully be able to keep the momentum going for the two that proceed it: massive games against 3rd place Tottenham Hotspur (away) and 4th place Manchester United (home).
It would seem that these matches may be the ones that define Emery’s first season in England, in the league, at least. But thanks to today’s fine result at the Emirates, Arsenal live to fight another day in Europe, with the draw taking place tomorrow at noon in Nyon, Switzerland.
Sevilla, Valencia, Napoli and Zenit St Petersburg are some of the teams still remaining that would represent challenging games as the Europa League approaches it’s latter stages.
There are still some teams left in the comp that could potentially represent “positive” draws, such as Dynamo Zagreb and Eintracht Frankfurt. This is all just speculation - tomorrow will tell what the round of 16 match looks like.
Tonight, however, is a celebration of a salvaged result and progression in the competition.