Arsenal boss Unai Emery needs his Europa League magic to rub off on players for showdown with BATE

james olley
Evening Standard

The Europa League specialist faces a surprisingly early test of his credentials tonight.

Unai Emery’s three consecutive victories in this competition with Sevilla, between 2014 and 2016, was an achievement prominent in the thinking behind his appointment as Arsene Wenger’s successor at Arsenal.

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Yet he now faces the prospect of trying to avoid one of the most embarrassing European exits in the club’s history, as they seek to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit in their last 32 tie against BATE Borisov.

Last week’s defeat in Minsk was an alarmingly underwhelming performance, as the team struggled to create clear opportunities against limited opponents following a bright start.

It is particularly awkward for Emery that even during the internal rifts and divisions of last season, Wenger beat the same opponents by an aggregate score of 10-2 in the group stage.

Arsenal can rescue the situation with an improved display on a much better surface than the bobbly Belarusian pitch that acted as something of a leveller between teams of contrasting quality.

But it is noticeable that Emery has largely eschewed criticism of his players and that display. When asked by Standard Sport how this group, often maligned for a perceived lack of character, process and deal with a shock defeat like the one against BATE, Emery gradually turned his answer into a team talk.

“We are speaking about each match, different situations in the Premier League or in the Europa League,” he said. “For example, when we finished the last match in Borisov, we were speaking about how we worked well and tried to get a better result. But football is like that.

“They found one goal and we did not score our chances. But it can happen and the most important thing is that, after, we have a second match and we want it to be different.

“Firstly, the grass is better and we are with our supporters. At home we feel strong and we need to impose our strong game-plan against them.

“Also, in our mind we can be prepared for extra time, for penalties because we need to be prepared for all the situations that can come.”

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Emery’s insistence that “we worked well” in the first leg is both a natural defence of his players but also an indication he believes his methodology requires no modification.

Tonight, therefore, becomes a key test of Emery’s way because crashing out of the Europa League at this stage is virtually unthinkable.

The competition is Arsenal’s insurance policy in their pursuit of Champions League qualification and while no European trophy is easy to win, an early exit would place huge pressure on a Premier League top-four race in which they are, in all probability, competing for one spot alongside Manchester United and Chelsea.

BATE have never been further than this stage in their European history. Arsenal have won only two of the 12 Uefa ties in which they lost the first leg but the vast majority of that modest record comprises games against opponents of far greater calibre.

Something must change from the first leg and Emery has decisions to make. Alexandre Lacazette’s suspension will force him into a personnel alteration and the likely attack versus defence pattern of this match would make Mesut Ozil or Aaron Ramsey’s inclusion most likely; a European defeat without Ozil on the pitch would surely raise more questions over Emery’s judgment.

The Spaniard stuck with a three-man defence in the first leg for an unusually long time, waiting until the 68th minute to make a change.

Switching to a back four must be tempting, given Arsenal are a stronger proposition at home and will surely dominate possession. The Gunners will wait until as late as possible to check on the availability of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who did not train yesterday because to illness.

An early evening kick-off time will impact on the attendance but regardless Arsenal need to produce a performance that keeps their season on track. Anything else and an exacting inquisition awaits.

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