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Europa League: Arsenal vs Ostersunds – An Unexpectedly Notable European Encounter

This afternoon, when Arsenal were drawn against Swedish outfit Ostersunds, it may have turned a few heads. In European competition, you become accustomed to seeing the same combination of names year-on-year, especially once the competition has reached it’s knockout stages. This was not necessarily the case with Ostersunds – a club formed a year after Arsene Wenger took charge in North London and who would not have dared to dream that they would have been playing against Arsenal in a European competition when they were in the 4th division of Swedish football as recently as 2010.It really is an incredible story for the club – in just 7 years, Ostersunds have ascended from 4th division mediocrity to the top tier of Swedish football in the Allsvenskan, earned a trophy at the foot of last season in the form of the Svenska Cupen (Swedish Cup) and now, almost scarcely believably, they are coming up-against a side considered to be one of Europe’s elites in Arsenal – and all of this happened under the watchful eye of an English manager.Graham Potter may not be a name that is thrown around too often when it comes to managerial jobs in English football, but one suspects that won’t be the case for long considering the quite frankly outstanding job he has managed to do in Sweden. His only previous managerial experience before taking the job at the 8,500-seat capacity Jamtkraft Arena were coaching roles with University of Hull and Leeds Met, where he had studied a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Emotional Intelligence. He had plenty of experience as a footballer, however – playing for a host of clubs, most notably Stoke, Southampton and West Brom, where he plied his trade as a left-back.He went about bringing an intuitive and innovative approach to his coaching, and when he took over the reins at the Swedish minnows at the beginning of the 2011 season, he could surely not have foreseen himself being the at the head of one of most incredible football tales of the decade.Over recent years, you may have heard stories of the “culture coach” – this is Potter, and just one of the ways he formed unity amongst the players in his adopted home. His players putting on a performance of the opera Swan Lake, being one notable example of his alternative approach; or his squad putting on an art exhibition; or even the rock concert that Potter performed at – Ostersunds operate differently than most clubs.And it wasn’t because of financial investment that they find themselves in a position to be facing Arsene Wenger’s men – it was the fresh approach of giving players a fresh approach. At a 5-hour journey away from the capital of Stockholm, and around half of that to the nearest major town, Ostersunds wasn’t a prime destination for top talent to come too. Potter used this isolation to his and the clubs advantage – offering players a fresh start if they needed it, and forging genuine unity amongst his players. It showed.A squad littered with English players such as Jamie Hopcutt and Curtis Edwards were promoted to the Swedish top-flight in 2016, and in the same season they dispatched Norrkoping 4-1 in the cup final to gain entry to the Europa League – and what it journey it has been for them.Just to qualify for the group stages they had to beat two sides over two legs – first, Greek side PAOK Salinka, and second, very impressively, Turkish giants Galatasaray, whose fans applauded the Swede’s following the game for the tenacity they showed.Even when Ostersunds got into the group stages, their progression looked unlikely based on the quality of their opponents. A group consisting of Athletic Bilbao, Hertha Berlin and Zorya Luhansk looked daunting but Potter’s men took it in their stride, beating the Ukranian’s Zorya both home and away; defeating Germans Hertha at home and earning a draw away; and even earning a famous 2-2 draw against the Spaniard’s Bilbao to finish the group in second on 11 points, only behind Bilbao on goal difference.All of this goes to show that Ostersunds are not a team to be taken lightly – although even with this being the case, it is hard to envision their incredible run going any further. Arsenal are huge favourites to win the match, and are indeed second favourites to win the tournament (only behind Atletico Madrid) but the fairy-tale isn’t over for Ostersunds just yet.It’s amazing the contrast between the clubs – the Gunners, in many respects, do not want to be in this competition as it is a constant reminder of their failure to finish within the top 4 for the first time in 21 years and adds to massive fixture congestion; whereas Ostersunds are contesting what is the biggest game in the history of their club, a testament to how far they have come as a club in such a short space of time.Graham Potter is the only English manager left in European competition. He’s very much so earned his trip home to face Arsenal.Arsenal’s group stage in the competition went relatively smoothly – bar a bore nil-nil draw and a shock loss against the bottom club in the Bundesliga in Germany – and seen them come out top of the group on 13 points, finishing last Thursday with a very impressive 6-0 win against BATE Borisov.Younger players such as Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson and Ainsley Maitland Niles played a large part in getting this far, which is good to see, and hopefully they will continue to be given a chance in the coming matches.The Round of 32 fixture between Ostersund and Arsenal’s first leg will be contested on the 15th of February, with the return leg being played one week later at the Emirates on the 22nd of February.