The first leg of Arsenal’s first Europa League knockout fixture under Unai Emery could have went better. The Gunners travelled to Belarus to face BATE Borisov, leaving with their tail between their legs and a 1-0 deficit for the return leg back in North London.
The game is very much so still up for grabs, however, with BATE’s upset being only the second time the Belarusian’s have beaten an English club (the other time was Everton 2009, and the one common factor was Shkrodan Mustafi featuring in both ties).
Unai Emery built his managerial reputation in the Europa League, and he will be hoping to make an impact in his opening season in the Arsenal dugout and build upon Arsene Wenger’s trip to the semi-final in last seasons competition.
The Round of 32 is the first knock-out round of the Europa League, so even though it is not Arsenal’s main priority this season – which surely still has to be securing Champions League football for next season through a top 4 finish as opposed to silverware in Europe’s secondary tourney – it would still represent a real disappointment in a competition where Arsenal appear on-paper to have one of the strongest teams remaining.
On the trip to Belarus, perhaps Arsenal didn’t show BATE enough respect. The home side hadn’t played a competitive game in months and were expected to come out rusty… it wasn’t necessarily the case. Despite only having a quarter of the possession, former Gunner Aleksander Hleb’s side came away with the 1st leg advantage.
Arsenal remain heavy favourites for the game despite beginning with a handicap. Is this justified? Well, if the Arsenal that has turned up at home against sides like Cardiff and Chelsea in recent weeks shows up on the day, then yes, perhaps the favourite tag is justifiable. The last time BATE came to North London was one to forget – they lost 6-0 in last season’s Europa League group stages.
In team news, one player who definitely won’t be featuring is French striker Alexandre Lacazette, who seen red in the first leg and will be suspended. In more positive news, however, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is set to make his first start in European competition since October, after generally being given these games to rest.
Mesut Ozil didn’t travel with the team last week as he was still feeling the effects of an illness bug, but trained with the side on Wednesday so is expected to play a part.
Aaron Ramsey is also expected to start, after a knee injury stopped him from featuring in Belarus, and Sokratis Papastathopolous may also be in contention after reportedly recovering from an ankle knock.
If Aubameyang, Ramsey and Ozil were added to the starting line-up, the side that begins the game in North London would already look stronger than the one that did so in Eastern Europe last week.
Not expected to feature is Ainsley Maitland-Niles, with the versatile full back missing the pre-match training with an illness on Wednesday.
Speaking prior to the match, manager Emery was confident that his team will be able to make a resurgence, and that they would be ready for extra time if necessary: "For us [Thursday] is a very important match. After the first result we must manage the 90 minutes and also know if we need more minutes after the 90 minutes it can be in our mind with the preparation to do that.
While the opposition, in truth, didn’t offer much in the first leg, they still came up with the goal that won the game when they needed it and then parked up the bus. The man to look out for with BATE is Igor Stasevich, who provided the assists for the goal in the first leg. Stasevich, with 7 assists, has now registered at least 3 more assists than any other player in 2018/19 Europa League.
If Aliakesi Baga’s side do manage to find the net, that will mean they have an away goal to their name. If that’s the case, then the Gunners will require at least 3 goals to progress to the last 16 of the competition.
With Aubameyang up front, there’s no doubt this Arsenal side has goals in it. The Gabonese striker has been a shining light for Arsenal this campaign, finding the net 18 times.
Sunday afternoon will see Arsenal return their focus to the league with arrival of Southampton to the Emirates, but until the final whistle goes on Thursday night, the Saints will not be the priority. The Gunners have shown good form at their home ground, and with 3 games in-a-row taking place in the Emirates – Bournemouth being the 3rd – followed by two huge matches against top 4 contenders Tottenham and Manchester United, this may be the beginning of a pivotal part of the season where momentum is key.
In the group stages last year, Arsenal put 10 goals into the BATE net over two games. This campaign, they’ve conceded one and scored none – Emery and all of his players will be out to rectify this stat on Thursday.
Arsenal play BATE Borisov in the second leg of the Europa League Round of 32 at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday the 21st of February, with kick-off scheduled for 5:55 local time.