Arsenal are travelling to Baku to face up against Azerbaijani league champions Qarabag in the Europa League at the Baku Olympic Stadium on Thursday, as Unai Emery’s side looks for their 8th consecutive win in all competitions.
If they were to claim victory, it would be the Gunners second win in the group stage of the Europa League after dispensing with Vorskla 4-2 at the Emirates in the opening fixture of the group and it would be the sides 3rd consecutive away win after already beating Newcastle United and Cardiff City – not bad for a side that were so ineffective on the road last year.
After 4 home games in succession, Arsenal now have to play two away games in the space of 4 days, with Fulham at Craven Cottage coming up on Sunday. The trip across London pales in comparison distance-wise; North London to Azerbaijan is a 5000-mile return trip, so the comforts of home will well and truly dissipate on Thursday.
Are Qarabag a side to fear? Well, anything could happen – especially in new surroundings - but surely out of all the games this season, this has to be the one that seems most winnable.
Qarabag lost their opening group game 2-0 away to Sporting Lisbon. They’re in fine form in their domestic league, sitting joint top of the table on 16 points after 6 games, with the only points dropped coming in a 1-1 draw against fellow league topper Neftchi.
This (somewhat unsurprisingly) is the first time that Arsenal and Qarabag have come up against each other. The Azerbaijani side have played English opposition 4 times before and have lost all 4 games with a combined score of 14-1.
The Europa League has been the setting of some fine Arsenal performances since the beginning of last season, and the scoreboards have reflected it – 17 players have found the net for the Gunners in that time, which is 6 more than the nearest competitors of Lazio and Zenit St. Petersburg.
While last season was Arsenal’s best European away run (won 4) since they made it to the Champions League final in 2005/06, they did in fact lose their latest Europa League group game – a 1-0 loss to Cologne in the final group match of last season’s campaign (after qualification to the knock-outs had been secured).
Arsenal have a few high-profile absentees. Henrikh Mkhitaryan won’t be part of the travelling contingent to Azerbaijan in mid-week, but not due to injury – it’s down to diplomatic issues.
There are tensions between Armenia – the Arsenal winger’s native country – and Azerbaijan that have been ongoing for years, with increased tension in recent times in what is known as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Somewhat remarkably (although perhaps serving as the best indicator of the seriousness of the circumstances), Qarabag manager Gurban Gurbanov claimed in the pre-match build-up that Arsenal had “saved” their player by allowing him to bow out for this occasion.
It is not the first time that Mkhitaryan has opted not to travel to the country for a European game – he did the same against Gabala in 2015 when playing with Borussia Dortmund.
Armenian citizens are not allowed to travel into or within Azerbaijan, although it is believed an exception could be made for Mkhitaryan if desired, as similar exceptions have been made for athletes and entertainment workers in the past.
With his place in the starting line-up not being a certainty under Emery thus far, this match may have given the player an opportunity to impress, but the manager has been understanding of his situation on the run-up to the game and his decision.
After coming on just prior to the half time mark against Watford at the weekend, Bernd Leno will retain his position in goals for the European tie. Petr Cech’s hamstring injury will keep him out for 4 weeks, meaning the German keeper has a chance to prove himself as the Gunners number one.
Also missing Thursday’s match after starting at the weekend are Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Aaron Ramsey. The former is ill, so will not be featuring and the latter is remaining in the UK as his wife is due to give birth.
The others out are defenders Sead Kolasinac, Konstantinos Mavropanos and Laurent Koscielny.
With all of the absentees, it is a certainty that the team will look highly-different to the side that bested Watford at the Emirates last Saturday, but that’s not to say it will be wholesale changes – Mesut Ozil and Alexandre Lacazette are expected to play a part.
With his eyes on 8 victories in-a-row, Emery played down his side’s enormous favorite status prior to the game, saying: "The best idea is to think only of the match tomorrow [Thursday] and with the respect for this competition because we want, at the end, to finish first in the group.”
He continued by showing his respect for the opposition, saying: "We have a lot of respect for Qarabag. They started with a good performance against Sporting. They lost 2-0 but it was a good performance. They have good players, good spirit. I remember last season Atletico Madrid couldn't win two games against them. That is two very good examples why we have respect for them."
A win against Qarabag would put Arsenal in a fine position to top their Europa League group, especially with arguably the two most difficult matches of the group coming up – home and away to Sporting Lisbon.
Claiming the 3 points with an assured defensive performance would be a boon for the Gunners, especially with the opportunity to win their 6th consecutive premier League match on Sunday against 16th place Fulham.
Arsenal play Qarabag in their second Europa League group game on Thursday in Azerbaijan at the Baku Olympic Stadium, with kick-off scheduled for the earlier time of 17:55