Last season, Arsenal experienced almost everything that the Europa League had to offer.
They experienced the enormous midweek travelling distances to countries such as Russia and Serbia; they experienced a congested fixture list; they experienced dead rubber games as the group came to a close; and most of all, they experienced hope – hope that they could win the trophy, book there place in the Champions league for next season despite finishing outside of the top 4 in the Premier League, and end Arsene Wenger’s tenure with a great success.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be, as eventual winners Atletico Madrid bested the Gunners in the Semi-Final. It was a long, whirlwind ride, with plenty of highlights and great goals, that ultimately ended in disappointment.
And now, it’s time to give it another go – except this time it’s under the watchful eye of “Europa League Master” Unai Emery.
Emery’s accomplishments in this competition are perhaps the stand-out achievements of his career. As Sevilla manager, the Spaniard managed to win the competition in 3 consecutive seasons – an undoubtedly impressive achievement.
Now, in his first campaign as Arsenal manager, he will have to draw from his previous successes in an effort to bring the Gunners back to Europe’s premier tournament – a tournament they have competed in during 19 of the last 20 campaigns
The first opponent of this campaign is Ukrainian side FC Vorskla Poltava. In the 2017-18 season, the club finished third in the top division for the first time since the 1996-97 season, booking their place in Europe.
The last time Vorskla competed in the Europa League was in 2011/12 when they were knocked out of a group containing Hannover 96, Standard Liege, and FC Copenhagen.
Vorskla have lost four of their five away matches in the league this season – including a heavy 4-1 defeat to European regulars Shakhtar Donetsk. That being said, they’re not in bad form, having won their past 3 domestic matches on home turf, and currently sit in a respectable 5th place after 8 games.
The game is - fortunately for Arsenal - taking place at the Emirates Stadium, meaning travel will not be an issue for this contest, which will hopefully leave the side in better shape to face Everton on Sunday.
On the pitch, perhaps Arsenal’s biggest downfall this season thus far has been their defensive solidity, and it is an area they will need to be wary of.
In terms of attack, on-loan from Shakhtar, Vorskla forward Vladyslav Kulach poses the visitors main threat. The 25-year-old has scored two goals in six appearances this season, and is highly-rated in the Ukrainian Premier League.
The opening Europa League fixture comes at a time for Arsenal where it appears that the new manager is beginning to find his stride following 3 victories in the past 3 games.
Within the side, this match may throw up some interesting team changes for the Gunners, with perhaps the most notable being the likely inclusion of Bernd Leno in goals for the first time since he made the move to north London in the Summer.
The general consensus upon the German’s transfer was that he would be installed as 1st choice goalkeeper at the club immediately, but this has not been the case.
Petr Cech has remained as Arsenal’s number 1, and as such, will likely be rested for this midweek tie. This will give an opportunity for Leno to take the spotlight and stake his claim for a starting berth in the league.
Or, perhaps, rather, it would be in Leno’s best interest to avoid the spotlight with Arsenal being undoubted favourites to win this match on home soil, it may be mishaps that bring attention to the new stopper. If he can offer an assured performance, then that would be a positive going forward.
Other new signings Stephan Lichtsteiner and Lucas Torreira may also start the match, making it an interesting spectacle for fans to see the new players beginning a competitive match.
While he did not start the most recent match against Newcastle United, Henrikh Mkhitryan was one of Arsenal’s stand-out plyers in his previous European campaign with the club, and will likely begin the match. The Armenian has yet to really get going so far this term, so will be hoping to impress when he has the chance.
As was the case last season, especially in the group stages, the Europa League will likely act as a platform for giving some fringe players playing time, as well as introducing younger players to the fray in less pressurized situations, so a large team shake-up can be expected.
The now long-standing injuries of Sead Kolasinac, Laurent Koscielny, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles will rule them out, but otherwise, Emery has an expected full-strength squad to choose from.
For the visitors, Yuriy Kolomoets is a doubt who are also missing Vladimir Odaryuk and Denis Vasin due to injury.
With Emery’s pedigree in this competition, he will no doubt be looking at the Europa League as aa genuine potential outlet for earning his first piece of silverware as Arsenal manager. Whether or not that is to be the case, the journey begins on Thursday against Vorskla, where he will be hoping to make it four wins from the past 4 games.
Both sides will also be keeping an eye on the result of Sporting Lisbon vs. Qarabag FK, with both sides making up the remainder of Group E.
Arsenal play Vorskla Poltava at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday the 20th of September in the Europa League, with kick-off scheduled for 8PM.