Can Arsenal progress in the Europa League?
Background photo: Tim Boyd, CC BY 2.0
Arsenal left Belarus in a daze after their Europa League Round of 32 opponents took the first leg of the tie 1-0. Stanislaw Drahun's goal at the stroke of halftime left the Gunners chasing the game in the second half. To add insult to injury, Alexandre Lacazzette was shown a straight red card for a retaliatory elbow on 85 minutes. BATE Borisov control the tie but now must make the 2,300 kilometre trip to London for the second leg. On the outside looking in at the Premier League top four, Unai Emery's only choice is to start his strongest available side to rescue his Europa League hopes and keep two routes to the Champions League open.
The North London side have not been at their best lately. This game showcased how far emery's squad has strayed from the form that fostered a 22-game unbeaten run. The Europa League is not a trophy the team wants to win for its own sake. A return to the Champions League increases the club's revenue streams significantly.
Aleksandar Filipovic saw a yellow card for the yank on Lacazette's shirt that drew the elbow. Frustration with BATE's clutching and grabbing cost Arsenal dearly but illustrated why they were unable to find a finishing move.
At the other end, Petr Cech proved again he is past his prime. The helmeted keeper was culpable for BATE's goal, not the first time his poor play has cost Arsenal this term. It will be a wonder if Emery can find the trust to keep playing him in cup matches and limiting Bernd Leno to the Premier League. Rotating goalkeepers is less about keeping the number one fresh. They don't run like outfield players. The intent is to maintain the backup's form. Cech repeatedly demonstrates his form isn't up to the standard required. It is time for Emery to play his best keeper in every match.
Not only will Emery need to adjust his thinking, he must light a fire under the squad. The Gunners were disorganised in both attack and defence against a far inferior team. The Belarusian Premier League is well into its winter break. This was a preseason tuneup for the home side who still managed to look like the better side.
The good news is the scoreline can easily be overturned should Emery name the right squad and employ better tactics. Dropping Cech for Leno is the obvious starting point. Barring injury, the first leg should be the veteran's last for the club. With the second leg at the Emirates and Lacazzette unavailable, it's also the perfect opportunity to extend an olive branch to Mesut Ozil. Emery shows no interest in playing the German in the Premier League but he can't do his job and ignore Ozil's talent in a moment of need. At the worst, an ineffective response from Ozil will justify Emery's treatment.
The second leg stands as the most important match in Arsenal's season. They cannot afford to look ahead to their Premier League clash with Manchester United in March. Emery's primary responsibility is to return the Gunners to the Champions League. He cannot throw away any chance to do so. The Spaniard must be all in at the Emirates on Thursday.