Our first step into the Europa League feels a little like the League Cup, but with a little extra spice.
Every year, the Coca-Cola/Rumbelows/Milk/Carling/Carabao Cup represents the opportunity for fans to see the next generation of our team, at a reasonable price for once.
For many seasons we have seen some incredible things performed by kids who dream of making it onto the biggest level, and us dipping our toes into europe’s second-tier competition means another chance for these kids to shine a little brighter.
The first game in our group stage sees us welcome FC Koln to The Emirates. The German club had a great season last year, but this year sees the Cologne team struggling badly. After three games, they currently sit bottom of the Bundesliga, with no points and just one goal scored.
Former fan favourite Lukas Podolski hails from the club, and the tattoo he sports of the Koln club crest shows his allegiance. The man with the hammer for a shot brings back happy memories for most, but he will not be torn in this match as a fan.
Does their poor form mean we can take the foot off the gas a little? We all know what our team plays like when we do that. For Arsenal, there is no middle ground. We either play awfully or we play teams off the park, so we must go into this game intent on three points. The Europa League may not be our desired level of competition, but we should be looking to win it, especially after years of pain in Europe.
We also have the chance to blood our kids more than in previous years. Usually, when we get dumped out of the League Cup it means our kids must bide their time until next season, but this group stage and the fixture congestion that comes with it means that our kids may well have to come of age if we are to progress and also keep our Premier League aims firmly in focus.
Reiss Nelson and Jack Wilshere are two names that should go straight into the lineup, but for varying reasons.
For Nelson, the youngster has been banging on the door for selection ever since our summer friendly games, and he has begun this term in the Under-23’s in blistering form – winning the August Player of the Month award. His trickery, ball control and eye for goal means he must be given a shot in the Europa League to gauge whether this is either where he belongs or if he needs more nurturing.
Jack is a conundrum. He hardly set the world alight after opting to join Bournemouth on loan last season, and since returning from the Vitality stadium inevitably injured, he has been fighting to get fit again. Now only match sharpness is needed, and what better way to attain this than the Europa League? Plus, our central midfield is hardly setting the world alight right now – a fit and firing Wilshere could make a huge difference to our team. This is a huge gamble though. For now, let us just see if he can stay fit for a few weeks.
The team should have a sprinkling of youth mingled with fringe players who have seen precious little gametime this season. Eddie Nketiah, Jo Willock and Ainslie Maitland-Niles can expect some minutes, as well as Calum Chambers, Theo Walcott, David Ospina and Alex Iwobi.
What of Alexis though?
The Chilean has recovered from his abdominal injury, but now seeks the last 5% he needs to be fully firing. Alexis may well play in this game, and instead of being swapped out for the following game at Chelsea on Sunday like the rest of the team probably will, Sanchez could stay in the team. It makes sense to get him flying as quickly as possible, and then play him as much as possible with an exit looking nailed on. Let us make the most of him whilst he is here.
FC Koln will be looking to play it tight and sneak away with a point most likely, especially with their season being worse than ours right now. No form means they need something, anything, to latch onto. They have some good players and last season showed they merit inclusion in Europe, but we must hurt them as they lay prone on the floor. We cannot afford to give anyone a second of recovery, we simply aren’t playing well enough.
Hopefully the players Arsene Wenger picks will go hell for leather to prove they are worthy of more minutes. that is the benefit of a packed squad, and this game is the stage in which they can show what they are made of.
So, for the first time, Thursday will see the The Emirates lit up for the Europa League. Let us all hope we have a fairly decent crowd and that our players put in a performance which is worthy of the badge.
Predicted Lineup – Ospina, Holding, Mertesacker, Chambers, Debuchy, Wilshere, Elneny, Nelson, Iwobi, Walcott, Alexis
Predicted Scoreline – Fingers crossed, 3-0 to The Arsenal.