Bernd Leno’s wait is over as the keeper has been tabbed to make his Arsenal debut Thursday when the Gunners begin their Europa League campaign at home versus Ukrainian side Vorskla Poltava at the Emirates.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Leno, a £19 million transfer from Bayer Leverkusen, was brought in as part of the new regime under Unai Emery in which Arsenal were going to start playing the ball out of the back as part of their renaissance and eventual return to elite football.
The 26-year-old Leno was unable to supplant incumbent and veteran Petr Cech, however, and has watched Arsenal overcome their slow start from the bench. Emery has not committed to Leno as the team’s cup keeper as the three-time winner of Europe’s second-tier tournament is keeping all of his options open as he continues to gauge his personnel.
“He’s here because he’s shown us his quality,” Emery said at his Wednesday news conference about Leno. “The quality for the goalkeeper for me is complex, but he has it. Tomorrow he is going to start and he can go a long way here at Arsenal. He’s young.
I spoke with him on the day of my first match about my decision, I give him my argument for the decision and [seeing] his performance in training every day, the best for him and for us is when he starts to play, to play with this performance. I am very happy with him.”
On the surface, it appears Emery will be starting a largely first-choice lineup. Stephan Lichtsteiner is expcted to get the start at right back, while fellow summer signing Lucas Torreira will pair with teen Matteo Guendouzi as the holding midfielders in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 set-up. Denny Welbeck is likely to start on the left flank in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s spot while lead striker Alexander Lacazette is expected to maintain his spot up front.
Coming from Juventus, where the Switzerland international was a regular as the Italian side often ventured deep into the Champions League, competing for playing time with Hector Bellerin and playing Thursday nights has been an adjustment for Lichtsteiner, whose lone action with Arsenal was a 55-minute runout against Manchester City in the season opener.
“I’m not frustrated but of course I’m not used to being on the bench more than three times in a row,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s also a new situation for me and I’m curious how I’ll manage it. I’m here to work, to get better personally, to get better with the team and I think we are in a very good way. I’m trying to start more and for that I have to work, that’s the only thing I can do in this moment to show the coach that I’m ready to play. We are in a good way, I’m in a very good way and ready to play.”
This is the second straight season Arsenal are toiling on Thursday nights, with Arsene Wenger’s final run to get back to the Champions League ending in a two-legged 2-1 loss on aggregate to Atletico Madrid in the semifinals.
Vorskla qualified directly for the Europa League group stage by finishing third in the Ukrainian Premier League last season behind perennial powers Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kyiv. The Green-Whites endured a slow start with three losses in their first four contests but have won three of their last four to climb to fifth place in the table.
Vasyl Sachko’s team is coming off a 1-0 victory at Karpaty Lyiv on Saturday in a foul-tempered match in which six yellow cards were issued. Defender Ardin Dallku was the unlikely offensive hero, scoring in second-half stoppage time to secure the three points and Sachko’s 60th career victory.
“We will fly to London in a good mood,” Sachko told BeSoccer. “We understand that we will have to wait in England. We have earned a place in European competition on sporting principle.
“We are not favourites in this group. The frontrunners are Arsenal and Sporting, while Qarabag are an experienced team. It will be very difficult. We will be dark horses, but we will try to win.”
The Green-Whites will be without three regulars for this match as Yuri Kolomets, Volodymyr Odaryuk, and Denis Vasin all did not make the trip due to injuries.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are overwhelming favourites at 1/9 odds to take all three points, with Poltava 33/1 longshots to pull off the shock scoreline. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 8/1.
The Gunners are also better than even money odds to win with more than 2.5 goals in the match at 1/2, with Arsenal victories by either a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline a distant second at 14/5. Oddsmakers are barely considering a draw as an outcome, as a 0-0 or 1-1 scoreline would return 10/1 odds while a 2-2 draw or higher is 33/1.
A 2-0 or 3-0 Arsenal scoreline are joint-favourites at 5/1, with a fourth goal to the hosts without reply would offer a 7/1 return.
Though he is not expected to be among the starters, Aubameyang is the favourite for first-goal honours at 23/10, closely trailed by Lacazette (14/5) and Welbeck (16/5). Mkhitaryan and Aaron Ramsey check in as 9/2 options to make it 1-0 for the Gunners.
Oddsmakers appear to be expecting at least three goals considering Aubameyang (8/15), Lacazette (8/11) and Welbeck (5/6) are all better than even money to score over the course of 90 minutes.
Much like Chelsea, this match is where supporters can begin to sense a direction and philosophy of Emery, who will begin making his squad rotations for this match. On the surface, he appears to have enlisted more than enough firepower for this contest by holding back only Aubameyang and Ozil, but it is always better to have too much than too little in a group opener.
The spotlight, though, will fall on Leno as he makes his Gunners debut. The only question is whether he will see enough of the ball against what appears to be an overmatched Vorskla side to make an assessment of the qualities that prompted Arsenal to pay Leverkusen nearly £20 million. The selling point was his ability to play the ball to start the cycle of possession — something Cech has been gamely attempting to learn — so something to watch for Arsenal will be a tempo through the middle third on those occasions Leno starts the build out from the back.
With three wins on the trot, Arsenal have shown expected strength in attack and frailty in the back. This is a good match for them to begin the cohesive process of being a team, which means top-shelf performances from both Torreira and Guendouzi would be a welcome start into a busy three-match stretch in the next seven days.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: ARSENAL 4, Vorskla 0.