Already through to the knockout round of the Europa League, it would not be surprising if Arsenal manager Unai Emery opts to give playing time to some of his younger and second-string players as the Gunners face their second long trip in group play with Thursday’s Group E clash with Vorskla Poltava.
The match has been moved 220 miles to Kiev — west of Vorskla Poltava — due to the simmering naval tensions between the Ukraine and Russia. The challenging logistics of travel — it is a round trip of 3,000 miles — ahead of a crucial top-five clash and north London derby versus Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday means Emery could overturn a large portion of his starting XI from the side that defeated Bournemouth 2-1 last weekend.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Gunners snapped a run of three consecutive draws with their win over Bournemouth, consolidating their top-five status while closing within one point of Chelsea. Arsenal (3-1-0) are unbeaten in 17 matches overall (13-4-0) after losing their first two under Emery, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal midway through the second half proving decisive versus the Cherries.
While the late change of venue has created logistical issues for both Arsenal and their supporters — the club is trying to help make sure the estimated 500 supporters making the trip will be able to get into the stadium in Kiev — Emery seemed to take everything in stride despite the club having its travel delayed by 90 minutes.
“First of all, we need to respect Uefa’s decision because it’s not easy for Vorskla,” Emery stated at Wednesday’s press conference. “It’s not an easy decision for Uefa to make either. For us, yesterday we were preparing for our trip to Poltava and then awaiting the final decision in the evening. We made small changes in our training session in London and now we have just arrived. This decision, for us, is with all the respect.”
One player familiar with the Ukraine is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who did not make the last lengthy road trip to Qarabag due to the on-going issues between his native Armenia and Azerbaijan. Mkhitaryan, who played for Metalurg and Shakhtar Donetsk, will be looking for his second goal in three matches after netting the equaliser versus Wolverhampton on 86 minutes before the international break.
I’m very pleased to be here and I have a lot of good memories from time with Shakhtar and Metalurg, and also with the players I used to play with,” Mkhitaryan said. “I still remember the day when I scored two goals for Donetsk.”
All told, Emery could be ringing in as many as eight changes from last weekend’s side, with Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi potentially the only attacking holdovers. Sokratis is expected to retain his spot in central defence, with Matteo Guendouzi and Mohamed Elneny serving as the link to the midfield in the 4-2-3-1 set-up. While Emery wants to build depth with these last two group matches, he also expects his younger charges to maintain a winning edge.
“When there are matches like tomorrow’s in a very big week for us, where we are playing a lot of matches, we have players to cover here,” Emery said, clearly eying the north London derby. “We need to give them chances. They are working with us in all the sessions and also in pre-season.
“They are coming with us because we can give them chances tomorrow and also because we would prefer for some players to not do this long travelling. We prefer for them to stay in London working for the next match on Sunday. The Europa League is very important for us and it’s very important for us to win tomorrow and come first in this group.”
Vorskla (1-0-3) still harbour hopes of advancing out of this group, though they are slim. They are four points behind Sporting for second, but need to not lose this match and hope Qarabag get a result against the Portuguese side to have something at stake in the group finale in Lisbon in a fortnight.
The Ukraine side have dropped three on the trot in all competitions as they suffered a 1-0 defeat at Mariupol on Saturday and are 17 points adrift of frontrunners Donetsk in the Ukrainian Premier League. Oleksander Zubov’s goal on 57 minutes proved to be the difference between the sides as Vorskla have now gone 321 minutes without a goal in all competitions since Najeeb Yakubu completed the scoring in the 39th minute of their 2-0 win over Lyiv on Nov. 4.
Vorskla have scored four goals in their four group matches, though two of them came at the Emirates well after the game was put of reach by Arsenal. Mkhitaryan suggested the late venue switch to Kiev may benefit Arsenal more since, “We were ready to play in Poltava, we are ready to play in Kiev. It was a long trip but it does not matter where we play. For Poltava it’s a big disadvantage because they wanted to play at home.”
Per Bet365, Arsenal are even money to return to London with all three points and potentially the top spot in Group E secured depending on the result of the Qarabag-Sporting match. There are 23/10 odds for the teams to split the points in what will be frigid conditions, while Vorskla have 7/2 odds to pull off a shock scoreline and perhaps give their qualifying hopes a lifeline.
Oddsmakers are expecting a low-scoring game as there are 4/5 odds on the match finishing with less than 2.5 goals while it is even money for the match to cross that threshold. For first-goal scorers, the toteboard is in disarray since Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette did not make the trip as Emery opted to keep the pair in London ahead of the Spurs match.
Eddie Nketiah is now the top option at 6/1, with a trio of Vorskla players — da Cruz Nicolas Careca, Gegham Kadymyan, and Yuriy Kolomoets range from 13/2 to 8/1. Mkhitaryan, Emile Smith-Rowe and Aaron Ramsey are all 17/2 selections to make it 0-1 to the Arsenal.
For any-time goal-scorers, Nketiah is a 2/1 selection, but it would not be surprising to see these odds fluctuate as punters review the adjusted Gunners options. The aformentioned Arsenal trio all have 3/1 odds at finding the back of the net.
The goal is really simple for Arsenal: Get a goal, get a win, make sure no one gets hurt, and get the hell out of there. It will be an intriguing challenge for the young Gunners, who could potentially be playing in a half-empty stadium, trying to deal with the frigid conditions and just the whole sub-optimal scenario that comes with the late venue switch. They will talk about it for years afterward — a good yarn for the kids and grandkids — but this is a match Emery might secretly be thrilled about post facto as no one is in their comfort zone for this match.
Vorskla has picked the absolute worst time to be in a goal drought, though they did play the full 90 minutes at the Emirates in the reverse fixture with those two goals in the final quarter-hour. The problem with that was the Ukraine side had only one shot on target in the first 75 minutes.
Mkhitaryan tore through Vorskla’s defence in that match, setting up goals by Aubameyang and Denny Welbeck eight minutes apart in the second half. He may have to become the goal-scorer in this match as Aubameyang will be watching from his cozy London confines and Aubameyang sidelined with that horrific ankle injury. Ramsey will have to pull the strings while Smith-Rowe, Iwobi and Mkhitaryan do the scoring damage.
It will take a lot for Arsenal not to get a result in this match, and it would not be surprising to see the Gunners assured of group honours by the final whistle.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Vorskla Poltava 0, Arsenal 3.