Arsenal take on FC Cologne on Thursday in the Europa League. It’s The Gunners first outing in the competition since reaching the final in 2000, under the competitions old format, the UEFA Cup.

Arsenal lost to Galatasaray in the 2000 final on penalties after the game finished 0-0. It was not a great game, and a very experienced Arsenal side were frustrated by Galatasaray’s dirty tactics from kick off.

The shoot-out was a disaster with only Ray Parlour scoring from the spot, while both Patrick Viera and Davor Suker fluffed their lines. Galatasaray held their nerve to score their first four from the spot. Game over.

Having made the final, and been favourites, the experienced Gunners really ought to have won the game with the chances they created in normal time. It was disappointing to say the least and the UEFA Cup would have looked rather nice in the Highbury trophy cabinet.

A Second Chance

The chance to rectify that loss comes again 17 years later. I’m quite excited about Arsenal being in the Europa League. Whilst not having anywhere near the prestige of the Champions League or the financial rewards that come with participating in it, at least the Europa League is something Arsenal could possibly win.

The same can’t be said about The Gunners chances in the Champions League in recent years. The elite triumvirate of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are a cut above the rest of Europe and have dominated the competition in recent years. There is a second tier of clubs in Juventus, Atletico Madrid and wealthy PSG who will rightly fancy their chances in the competition this season. The Gunners are nowhere near these six teams.

Arsenal getting knocked out by one of the big boys once they’ve progressed from the group stage is getting as utterly tedious as it is predictable. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken for the sake of both the fans and players sanity. If that means dropping out of the competition and having a strong run to the latter stages of the Europa League then bring it on. ‘A change is as good as a rest’ as the saying goes.

At this early stage Arsenal are joint favourites for the competition with AC Milan. This could change when the group stages of the Champions League conclude, and the third placed teams drop down into the Europa League. There is every chance Spurs could be one of those.

My hope is Wenger treats this competition seriously and as a real chance for the club to win a trophy they haven’t won before. There is a real opportunity to do something different this season.

The Opposition

FC Cologne (FC Köln) are Lukas Podolski’s home team. The German played a total of 171 games for the club over two spells becoming a club legend in the process. Podolski is held in such high regard that the club decided to retire the no. 10 shirt in his honour while he remained an active football player.

The FC Cologne of today is a club very much on the up. At the end of the 2013-14 season the club were crowned champions of Budesliga 2, thus securing promotion back to the top flight. In the subsequent three league seasons the club finished 12th in 2014-15, 9th in 2015-16 and secured 5th place in 2016-17. The Bundesliga 5th place finish brought FC Cologne qualification for the Europa League, which means a return to the European stage after a 25-year absence.

Last season’s fifth place finishers in the Bundesliga vs the fifth best team in the Premier League suggests a good match awaits. The Bundesliga is a very strong league with quality running through it.

Having said all that the team’s form in the Budesliga this year is, shall we say, reassuringly poor. It reads played 3, lost 3, scored 1, conceded 7. FC Cologne currently sit in 18th place in the league table, which is rock bottom.

FC Cologne’s coach is Peter Stoger, he has led the side since 2013. Stoger has set the team up as a hard-working, aggressive side, usually in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They like to shut down the midfield and play it down the flanks as much as possible, relying on their
forward line to take the chances when they come.

Unfortunately for Cologne that forward line is not as good as it was. Anthony Modeste, the clubs leading scorer with 25 goals last season, followed the cash down the silk road to China in the summer. Cologne are looking toothless upfront this season.

FC Cologne’s best players are probably the captain, full-back Jonas Hector who plays for Germany, and their new forward Jhon Cordoba, a strong and mobile Colombian who possesses a powerful shot.

If You Are Good Enough You’re Old Enough

Arsenal have a good crop of youngsters at the club, arguably the strongest in years. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock are the closest to the first team at present. All three can expect time on the pitch on Thursday. One or two of them might even start.

This week Arsenal added more academy products to the Europa League squad list that already included several youngsters. The additional young players now also eligible for matchday selection are Julio Pleguezuelo, Jordi Osei-Tutu, Gedion Zalelem, Vlad Dragomir, Yassin Fortune, Emile Smith Rowe and Nathan Tormey. These players have been reportedly training with the first team this week in the run up to the Europa League opener.

This competition should be a great chance for some youngsters to stake a claim for a place in the matchday squad.

Arsenal’s Approach: Be Bould...sorry I mean't Be Bold

With one eye on Sunday’s trip to Stamford Bridge Wenger will want to heavily rotate his team. Some key first team players apparently didn’t train on Wednesday which means they will not be included for selection on Thursday. Confirmed as being rested by the boss are Ozil and Ramsey, while Koscielny is suspended.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Wenger make eleven changes to the side that started against Bournemouth. We certainly have enough depth in central defence and in attack. What he does with the team in central midfield and down the flanks will be interesting and will probably represent the best opportunity for game time for the youngsters.

Whatever team he picks I just hope they play with the same intensity, movement, and cohesion that we saw in Saturday’s victory. If Arsenal can get close to that performance then Cologne won’t be able to cope and will be overwhelmed.

My Team

As mentioned above I think we will see heavy rotation for this game. I would be tempted to make wholesale changes and keep players fresh for Sunday at Chelsea.

Assuming the boss is sticking with the 3-4-2-1 formation I would pick Ospina in goal and a back three of Holding, Mertesacker and Chambers. Down the flanks I would be tempted to start Ainsley Maitland-Niles on the right and Josh Dasilva on the left. Dasilva represents quite a risk as he is very green but our options are limited given both Monreal and Kolasinac will most likely start on Sunday.

In the middle of the park it gets interesting. Elneny is a shoe-in with his energy and selfless midfield play. Next to him I would love to see Jack back. This is on the proviso that he is fit enough and ready. The boss was quite coy on Wilshere’s fitness other than to say he was training well and close. I think Wilshere and Elneny could be very effective (if fit).

In the two behind the forward I think Alexis and Iwobi will start. Alexis could probably do with 70 minutes under his belt before Sunday. Up front it’s the big Frenchman. Giroud has done nothing wrong this season, deserves a start and could notch his 100th goal for the club in this match.

Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock should be on the bench and hopefully get some game time. Provided the game is going well then, I would bring on Nelson and rest Alexis for the final 20 minutes. If Jack does start that Willock should get the chance to come off the bench.

My Prediction

A comfortable night for The Gunners.

Arsenal 3 – 0 FC Cologne