Another of the TBDominos (H/T to PDB for that one) fell today - the Europa League group stage is set. Arsenal have drawn into Group E with Sporting Lisbon, Qarabağ FK, and FC Vorskla Poltava. This is a decent group for the Gunners - they avoided the larger, well-known clubs in the draw. The trips to Azerbaijan and Ukraine will be tricky because of the distance, but Arsenal will still be favored to win the group.
The Gunners do not have much of a history with these clubs. They’ve faced Lisbon twice in something called the Fairs Cup back in 1969 (1-1-0) and have never faced either Qarabag or Vorskla Poltava.
Sporting Lisbon has had a tumultuous 2018. In April, club President Bruno De Carvalho wrote on social media that the team was suspending 19 players following a Europa League loss to Atlético Madrid. The suspensions never happened, and the players played the next weekend. Following the club’s failure to qualify for the Champions League on the last day of the season, a mob of approximately 50 fans attacked the players and staff. In response, nine players terminated their contracts and quit the team. In June, the club’s general assembly voted to terminate De Carvalho’s tenure. The club then sacked its new manager just nine days after hiring him.
If the name Qarabağ sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because they made the Champions League for the first time in club history last season. They only managed 2 points in the group stage, and although they drew Atlético Madrid twice, they shipped 10 goals across two matches with Chelsea.
FC Vorskla Poltava has had a tough start to the season. They sit 8th in the Ukrainian Premier League after six matches.
It will be interesting to see how Unai Emery handles the Europa League and the other cup competitions. Will he use them as an opportunity to give his young / less used players a run out or as a chance to give his first-teamers more reps in his system? My bet is the former, at least until the matches get tougher or results are needed.
Winning the Europa League is probably Arsenal’s best shot at returning to the Champions League next season, and Unai Emery is something of a Europa League specialist. He won the competition three years in a row (2014, 2015, and 2016) at Sevilla.
The first round of matches takes place on September 20th.