I can’t remember the last time there was this much non-football-related drama leading up to an Arsenal match. It’s been downright chaotic in the run-up to the Europa League tilt with Vorskla Poltava on Thursday.
On Sunday, Russia fired on Ukrainian vessels in the Kerch Strait and has since boarded ships, detained sailors, and physically blocked access to the waterway. The Ukrainian parliament instituted martial law in response. The match was moved 211 miles west (read: away from Russia) from Poltava to Kyiv for security reasons.
And the forecast for tomorrow? A tropical high of 22 degrees Fahrenheit, which is -5.5 degrees Celsius (for those of you outside the USA) and 267 Kelvin (for you scientists?).
Arsenal have already secured a place in the knockout stages of the competition and can clinch first in the group by matching or bettering Sporting’s result in Thursday’s match.
When the two sides met in September, Arsenal won 4-2. That scoreline makes the match seem closer than it was. The Gunners dominated the first 75 minutes, conceding two late goals once the three points were essentially in the bag. The young side selected by Unai Emery to travel to the Ukraine may have some difficultly duplicating that result. Only 10 senior players (I’ve included 21-year old Ainsley Maitland-Niles in that number) traveled. U23’s fill out the rest of the roster.
The youthfulness of Thursday’s squad may have something to do with Arsenal’s next two league fixtures - Tottenham at the Emirates on Sunday then away to Manchester United on Wednesday. Unai Emery said as much in his pre-match press conference.
Press conference finally underway. Emery on bringing the kids: "We need some players, not to rest, but we prefer [for them] not to do this travel and [instead] stay in London working for the next match on Sunday."— James Olley (@JamesOlley) November 28, 2018
But a young squad is what many in the media / Arsenal fan community have been agitating for Emery to use in the Europa League for some time now. Looking at the players that traveled, there will be at least two (and possibly more) U23’s getting a starting nod.
If Emery starts as many senior players as possible, the lineup has space for two young guys (2 of the 10 senior players who traveled, Cech and Martinez, are keepers). Emile Smith Rowe will almost certainly start at striker, and hopefully we will see Eddie Nketiah come on for him at some point.
The other spot is a bit murkier. Only two natural centerbacks traveled - Rob Holding and 18-year old Zech Medley. It seems unlikely Medley will make his first senior team appearance as a starter on the road in a Europa League match, but it could happen. More likely is that Mohamed Elneny plays centerback and Joe Willock starts in the midfield. Yet another option would be to slide either Carl Jenkinson or Stephan Lichtsteiner to the middle and start a young outside back, either Dominic Thompson or Jordi Osei-Tutu.
Arsenal’s final group stage match is December 13th at the Emirates against Qarabag, sandwiched between matches against Huddersfield (15th in the table) and Southampton (18th in the table). Should Arsenal need a result from that match, Unai Emery will be able to use his first-choice players more freely for it. With that in mind, hopefully Emery takes advantage of the opportunity to give some younger players meaningful, first-team experience on Thursday.
WHAT: Arsenal at Vorskla Poltava (kinda)
WHERE: Olympiskiy Stadium, Kyiv, Ukraine
WHEN: Thursday, November 29th 9:55 AM PT | 12:55 PM ET | 5:55 PM BT
US TV: UniMas (Spanish). Streaming on the B / R Live app ($$$, US only).
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