Arsenal travel to Belarus to take on BATE Borisov in the Europa Leauge last 32 on Thursday night.
The north London side will have fond memories of their opponents, having faced them in the same competition as recently as the 2017 groups stages, beating them 4-2 in Belarus and an even more convincing 6-0 back at the Emirates.
Domestically, Unai Emery’s men have been a bit stop-and-start, struggling to string results together to mount any real title challenge. This will, in part, help set the tone for this fixture.
When is BATE Borisov v Arsenal?
Competition: Europa League
Venue: Borisov Arena
Kick-off: 17:55 (BST)
Where to watch: BT Sport 2
BATE Borisov are the habitual winners of their league, finishing as champions again last season for the 13th consecutive time. Their real challenge arises on the European stage.
Despite Arsenal’s lack of significant form, they should have far too much for the minnows to compete with.
This isn’t to say the Belarussian side are to be dismissed entirely and given that they secured a 3-1 victory away to PAOK, there’s clearly a side in there. But the clear disparity between the sides is there for all to see.
Aaron Ramsey’s injury and Mesut Özil’s confirmed absenc, plus the question mark over the inclusion of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, means that Arsenal are likely to name an unfamiliar side.
Although Arsenal haven’t built up consistent form, their recent losses have only come against top-six sides (West Ham aside) and a confident 2-0 victory over Chelsea just under a month ago will no doubt be in the back of their minds.
Truly no games are easy, but with the league out of their grasp, this tournament could be something that Emery will set his focus on. If so, it could be a torrid night again for BATE.
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Should the Europa League be Emery’s priority?
There is a battle for Premier League supremacy and Arsenal are not involved in it. Manchester City and Liverpool are wrestling away at the top with Tottenham the possible darkhorse, capable of sneaking up unexpectedly.
Currently 15 points adrift of the top spot and without the cohesive nature or technical quality of their rivals, Arsenal are fighting for a Champions League spot again.
Although they should manage that, there’s also another way of getting there: by winning the Europa League.
With their 2005-06 Champions League runners-up spot moving further away by the day and Emery’s tenure losing its sheen after his side’s admirable 22-match unbeaten streak earlier on in the season, the Spaniard could do worse than to bring back some silverware on the way to clinching a Champions League spot.
Is Özil unsettling the side?
Although he’s now played as many games this season as he’s missed, and was absent in the latest league outing against Huddersfield due to illness, Özil was initially expected to be called upon in Belarus.
The German has played in all of Arsenal’s European fixtures this term, but has not travelled with the rest of the squad despite returning to full training earlier this week.
On the one hand, Arsenal are missing out on a world-class midfielder that strengthens the midfield when he’s a part of it, but also, it may hint at deeper underlying issues at the club.
Transfer rumours abound, Özil has been linked to Inter Milan or an even more lucrative move to China.
His vast wages will be difficult for potential suitors to meet and, if he isn’t playing, it’s money that Emery can’t spend. Yet another missed match from the German is no doubt going to put further strain on the manager.
Will the side suffer irrevocably in this tie without him? No. Could his absence leave an air of uncertainty in the dressing room? It’s possible. Like Neymar during Emery’s time at Paris Saint-Germain, that all depends on the German’s influence behind the scenes.
Can Arsenal go all the way?
Replacing Wenger at Arsenal was never going to be easy, despite the continual shortcomings both domestically and in Europe during the latter years of the Frenchman’s tenure.
Only last season though, Arsenal made it all the way to the Europa League semi-final where they faced eventual winners Atlético Madrid.
It would have been a fairytale ending for Wenger, but it was not to be. Now it’s up to Emery to carry the torch from where it was left off.
Arsenal can definitely consider BATE as favourable opponents but – with the likes of Napoli, Eintracht Frankfurt and Sevilla still in the hat – Emery will have to conjure some magic to make it all the way to the final as he balances priorities between Europe and a top-four challenge.
The sides have only met twice before and they were as recently as 2017. Arsenal managed to win both of those ties with a 10-2 aggregate scoreline and will no doubt be hoping to do the same here.
Arsenal, of course, went on to reach the semi-final of that tournament as well. Maybe a Belarussian blessing is on its way again.
BATE wins: 0 Draws: 0 Arsenal wins: 2
Arsenal will be without the injured Ramsey, Granit Xhaka and a sickly Özil. Despite these omissions, Emery seems hopeful that Aubameyang will make return which will give his side some much-needed firepower.
Bate predicted XI: Scherbitski; Rios, Volkov, Filipenko, Filipovic; Baha, Drahun, Hleb, Skavysh; Dubajic, Stasevich.
Arsenal predicted XI: Cech; Maitland-Niles, Mavropanos, Koscielny, Kolasinac, Torreira Guendouzi; Mkhitaryan, Suarez, Iwobi; Aubameyang.
Perpetual champions they may be, but BATE are beginning to punch above their weight at this stage of the competition and anything other than a resounding Arsenal victory should be taken as an affront.
If Aubameyang does return, that alone will give the BATE manager and centre-backs sleepless nights.
Arsenal don’t need to trounce their opponents, but they do need to make a statement and produce a dominant performance. BATE might nick a goal, but it’s hard not to see the Gunners cruising to a win.
BATE Borisov 0 – 3 Arsenal