It will be the longest trip for a match in Arsenal history, but it will not be without some intrigue Thursday when Arsenal look to maintain their status atop Group E of the Europa League in Azerbaijan against Qarabag.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Gunners have made the 4,000-kilometre trek to Baku with a few notable omissions from their squad. Keeper Bernd Leno is expected to start in this match, but he is also currently the uncontested No. 1 since Petr Cech is sidelined at least a month due to a hamstring injury.
Arsenal manager Unai Emery has left three of his regular attacking starters behind in London as Aaron Ramsey, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are all absent. In the case of Ramsey, his wife is expected to give birth to twins any day, while Aubameyang has been battling an illness and hopes to be available for Sunday’s league match against Fulham.
Mkhitaryan’s absence, however, is a personal issue due to his Armenian heritage. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been involved in a dispute regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh region over the past 30 years. Both manager and player agreed it would be better for the winger to not make the trip and did not apply for a visa to Baku, which is also the site of the Europa League final in May.
“My work is football. I respect each person, I respect each people, I respect each culture, I respect each country,” Emery said at his Wednesday news conference. “But I don’t know each situation in every country. For me, he cannot play tomorrow. There is respect for Micki and respect for you. Today we are here with the opportunity to play well.
“He cannot travel here. We are here, the players with the best mentality and preparation and possibility to play tomorrow.”
This is not the first time Mkhitaryan has not traveled to Azerbaijan for a match, also sitting out a Europa League game in 2015 with Borussia Dortmund when they played Gabala due to security concerns.
Qarabag manager Gurban Gurbanov could not resist the urge to take a jab at the player and the London club during his news conference, stating “If Henrikh Mkhitaryan would come to Azerbaijan it is not the first time, until now a lot of Armenian sportsmen came to Azerbaijan but it is the choice of Arsenal that they didn’t send [him].
“Arsenal may be afraid that in front of 60,000 Azerbaijani fans, Mkhitaryan has some pressure and that is why they didn’t send Mkhitaryan.”
The Gunners, though, enter this contest in fine form and looking for their eighth consecutive victory on the bounce after starting the season with back-to-back defeats. Arsenal have not won eight in a row since a run of nine consecutive triumphs from March 1-April 18, 2015, in which they were eliminated from the Champions League on away goals and picked up a pair of FA Cup victories en route to lifting that trophy.
Emery does not lack for options to replace his attacking trio as Danny Welbeck will likely find his way into the starting XI and perhaps lead the line. Welbeck had a brace in Arsenal’s Carabao Cup win last week and also scored in their 4-2 victory over Vorskla to open their Europa League campaign. In Mkhitaryan’s place on the wing is expected to be Alex Iwobi, who had an assist in the win over Vorskla and has appeared in some capacity over Arsenal’s last four matches in all competitions.
“This season I’ve been working a lot more on trying to improve my finishing and also assisting my team-mates which is what I believe someone in my position should do to get to the next level,” Iwobi told the team’s official website. “I’ve been focusing on that and also in training I feel like my team-mates have been giving me the freedom to express myself, as well as the new boss. There’s no pressure or weight on my shoulders. I’m just enjoying my football.”
Sokratis could return to the back four for this contest after missing the last two matches due to a knock suffered in the win over Everton. Arsenal have recorded clean sheets in back-to-back league matches and have trailed for just five of a possible 630 minutes during their seven-match run.
Qarabag are second in the Azerbaijan Premier League, trailing Neftchi PFK on goal difference and are unbeaten in league play with five victories and a draw in their first six matches. The Atlilar have won three on the trot since opening Group E play with a 2-0 defeat at Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon and are coming off a 2-0 victory at Morning on Saturday.
Michel’s header in the 82nd minute snapped a scoreless deadlock before Innocent Emeghara secured the victory on 89 minutes with an insurance goal. Qarabag have worn down opponents domestically, scoring six of their nine goals after the hour mark in their three victories.
Emeghara has scored a team-leading four goals for the Horsemen, while Mahir Madatov, Abdellah Zoubir, and Filip Ozobic have contributed two apiece. While most of the names on Qarabag are unfamiliar, keeper and Iceland international Hannes Halldorsson is not expected to play as he has fallen behind Vagner in the pecking order.
Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are heavily tipped to extend their win streak as they enter the match 4/9 favourites. The hosts are 6/1 longshots to crack the win column while a draw returns 16/5 odds.
After six goals in their opening match, Arsenal are again expected to pour it on in this contest and have 13/10 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored in the contest. The Gunners also have 5/2 odds to record a 1-0 or 2-0 victory, while a draw with less than 2.5 goals returns 21/5 odds. For those who fancy the underdog, a Qarabag win of any nature is listed at 12/1.
With Aubameyang home in London, Alexander Lacazette leads the line for first goal-scorers at 10/3, with Welbeck close behind at 4/1. There are some potential big payouts as Mesut Ozil (7/1) and Iwobi (15/2) offer impressive returns to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal. Those do pale in comparison to Emeghara, who is Qarabag’s top option at 17/2.
Lacazette has 11/10 odds to score over the course of 90 minutes, and Welbeck lurks right behind at 11/8. Ozil checks in at 12/5, narrowly ahead of Iwobi (5/2), and Emeghara again leads the way for the Horseman at 14/5, followed by Madatov (10/3).
The drama surrounding Mkhitaryan aside, it has become clear Emery is taking the Europa League seriously and trying to rotate his players to keep them fresh for Premier League play. He brought 21 senior players to Azerbaijan, showing respect to Qarabag along with the full expectations the Gunners will return to London with three points.
Emery could tweak the formation some without Aubameyang, Ramsey and Mkhitaryan, but at the same time, the Armenia international’s absence gives him the flexibility to keep his preferred 4-2-3-1 and put Welbeck out wide. Sead Kolasinic is expected to get his first start of the season at left back for Nacho Monreal, and Sokratis’ return gives Shkodran Mustafi a rest.
This should be a straightforward effort for the Gunners, who should be able to run and hide early in this contest and strengthen their chances of reaching the knockout round before facing the other quality side in Group E in Sporting Lisbon.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Qarabag 0, ARSENAL 3.