Let’s rewind the tape. The day was December 13th, 2018. Fresh off of beating FK Qarabag at the Emirates to the tune of 1-0 to wrap up the top spot in their group for the first round of the Europa League, it felt as though things were starting to look good for the Gunners headed into the holiday season. Birds chirped. Bees buzzed. Arsenal had just played their 22nd straight match without losing, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was leading the league in scoring. For the first time in a long time, it felt like the best of times.
Everything since? Well, it certainly has felt like the worst of times.
The two months since the Europa League group stage wrapped up have not been kind to Arsenal. The Gunners have lost six of their last 13 matches across all competitions, been booted out of the FA Cup at the hands of a red-hot post-Mourinho Manchester United and the Carabao Cup by hated rivals Tottenham, and lost Hector Bellerin for the season with a knee injury, weakening an already paper-thin defense.
Off the pitch, things have not improved much, either. Unai Emery and star midfielder Mesut Ozil have continued their feud to the detriment of the club, and the worst-kept secret in European soccer was finally, officially confirmed when it was announced yesterday that Aaron Ramsey would be leaving Arsenal after 11 seasons in London, joining Juventus on a free transfer in the upcoming summer for an eye-watering sum. The lone addition during the winter transfer window was former Emery acolyte Denis Suarez, whose acquisition was met with equal parts indifference and frustration.
After such a miserable stretch, the Gunners will be happy to be back to the Europa League, which Emery has conquered before and has now made a focal point of his first season at Arsenal. The road back to Champions League soccer has not been easy for the Gunners, but they will need their best effort both domestically and in the Europa League if they want to cement their spot in net season’s Champions League.
The first opponent in the Europa League round of 32 is a familiar foe, as Arsenal faced BATE Borisov in last year’s Europa League group stages. The Gunners handled the Belarusian side with relative ease, beating them 10-2 on aggregate. This year, BATE Borisov earned their spot in the knockout rounds after finishing second to Chelsea in group L, which included Vidi and PAOK Salonika, which I assume are actual European soccer clubs.
BATE Borisov currently stand atop of the Belarus Premier League table with 73 points, 9 points ahead of FK Shakhtyor and 37 points ahead of 8th place Slutsk. Oh, we forgot to mention - there is a team in Belarus named Slutsk. While the majority of BATE’s roster is a laundry list of Belarusian names that I cannot pronounce, one name should stand out to Arsenal fans, as former Gunner Alexander Hleb, still a professional soccer player at 37, features in their midfield.
With no room for error and a chance for an important away victory, Arsenal will be expected to field a strong team. The return of Henrick Mkhitaryan to the side could not be more timely, as Arsenal have a creative boost back in the attack. Arsenal relied on Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi to flank Alexandre Lacazette against Huddersfield, a lineup Emery will more than likely repeat on Thursday. With neither Ramsey nor Ozil available for a second straight match, Arsenal’s midfield will need to dig deep to replace the creativity both players provide.
Defensively, the Gunners will still be without Sokratis, who is not expected to return to training until late February, and Dinos Mavropanos, which all but assures a Shkodran Mustafi appearance in the back line. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac will more than likely feature as the wingbacks, having both shown great promise in their respective roles recently.
Regardless of the opponent, Arsenal will want to put the match to bed early. An away win will give the Gunners a cushion ahead of the home leg, and with an incredibly tight race for the top four underway, Arsenal need not stretch themselves too thin with a physical, exhausting match. If history is any indicator, Arsenal should be able to put this one out of reach with relative ease. But, as we have learned, nothing about this season’s Arsenal squad as of late says “relative ease.”
WHAT: Arsenal at BATE Borisov
WHEN: 12:55pm EST/9:55am PST/5:55pm BST
WHERE: Borisov Arena, Barysaw, Belarus
HOW TO WATCH: As with all of Arsenal’s Europa League matches this season, this will only be available on B/R Live.
Please do not discuss or share illegal streams.