Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — BATE Borisov (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Chelsea have a chance to wrap up the top spot in Group L of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a home-and-home sweep of BATE Borisov in Belarus.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues are still unbeaten under first-year manager Maurizio Sarri. In addition to grabbing the maximum nine points from their first three group matches, Chelsea are two points back of reigning champions Manchester City in the Premier League, in second place ahead of Liverpool on goal difference.

Sarri’s side, though, have had struggle finding goals in this competition with five goals in the three victories. The good news is they put three past the Tractor Boys at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, trigging their current four-match winning streak in all competitions in which they have piled up 13 goals after pulling away for a 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace last Sunday.

Eden Hazard, who had been slowed by a back injury that resulted in a three-match absence, came off the bench versus Palace and made an immediate contribution after has introduction by assisting on Alvaro Morata’s tie-breaking goal on 65 minutes.

It was Hazard’s fourth overall assist and his third in league play coming off the bench. The Belgium international has logged just 36 minutes in Europa League play, but Sarri included him on the roster to make the 3,200-mile round trip with an eye on finishing off qualification for the knockout round. The Pensioners will claim group honours with a victory and a draw by Midi and PAOK in the other match.

“According to our doctor there is not any risk, otherwise he would have stayed at Cobham, of course,” Sarri told the club’s official website. “We felt that for him it’s better to play, not for 90 minutes, but to play after two weeks of not playing.

“In the last match he played only for 30 minutes. The best way for him is that tomorrow he will play for 45 or 50 minutes.”

Somewhat surprising is who did not make the trip in Morata and midfielder Cesc Fabregas. Morata appeared to turn a corner with his brace, giving him six goals in all competitions, but Sarri saw this as an opportune time to give the Spaniard a breather having played all but 16 minutes in Chelsea’s last three matches while Olivier Giroud dealt with a knock.

Fabregas has been waylaid by an illness, prompting N’Golo Kante to make the trip. But since that is not the like-for-like switch that Sarri prefers, it appears Jorginho will serve as midfield metronome for the 4-3-3.

“We are in a perfect mood,” left midfielder Mateo Kovacic said. “We are doing good in our league and we are doing good in all competitions so this team wants to play football, we enjoy it, and every game we have an opportunity to show ourselves, so tomorrow we will be prepared and give our best to win the game.

“We are still unbeaten and we have not played at our highest level. We are with the coach only three months and of course it needs time to understand completely and to work on his football. I think we are doing a great job and I am sure in every training and every game we will be better and better.”

Sarri’s pattern of rotating his entire back line appears set to continue as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and David Zappacosta are likely to feature in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga.

BATE, who have wrapped up their 13th consecutive domestic title, have won three on the bounce since their loss to Chelsea and are coming off a 1-0 victory over Neman Grodno on Sunday. Yevegniy Berezkin came off the bench in the 77th minute and scored the winner two minutes from time.

The Tractor Boys have lost their last two group matches after winning at Midi, and the seven goals shipped in those two defeats have left them at the bottom of Group L at the halfway point. BATE will be keen to contain Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who ran riot in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge and accounted for all of Chelsea’s offence in the 3-0 victory.

We have followed all the games Chelsea have played. Videoton played well, had plenty of chances and could have got a different result. They are an example for us,” BATE manager Alyaksey Baha told BT Sport. “We analyse the games (against Arsenal) so we learnt from our mistakes. Now, a year later we are here in England, in London, playing against a top club, and we hope for a better result this time.”

Chelsea have outshot opponents 73-15 through the first three matches of group play and have won six consecutive Europa League matches dating back to a loss to Ruben Kazan in 2013. BATE have just two wins in their last 15 Europa League matches (2-5-8) while shipping 33 goals.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decided favourites to make the group a fait accompli with 4/11 odds to take home all three points. There are 15/4 odds for the teams to split the points, while hosts BATE are a 17/2 pick to pull off an upset and improve their chances of getting out of the group.

The Blues are almost even money to win with a result of more than 2.5 goals at 21/20, while a 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline — they posted a 0-1 result at PAOK in their other group play contest on the road — has a 5/2 return. The odds of a deadlock at 0-0 and 1-1 are 15/4, while BATE has 16/1 odds for a victory on either side of the 2.5 threshold.

Oddsmakers have listed nine Chelsea players and the “no goal-scorer” ahead of BATE’s top option for the first goal of the match. Eden Hazard leads the line at 16/5, while Chelsea’s strikers Morata and Olivier Giroud are joint-second at 7/2. Willian follows at 9/2, edging out Callum Hudson-Odoi and fellow winger Pedro (5/1). Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek lurk slightly further back at 6/1. The top picks for BATE are Nikolai Signevich and Igor Stasevich at 12/1.

No one on Chelsea is better than even money to score, though Hazard (21/2), Morata and Giroud (both 23/20) are close. Willian is also a favourite among the oddsmakers at 8/5 while Hudson-Odoi and Pedro (both 7/4) and Loftus-Cheek and Barkley (19/10) also have shorter odds than 2/1. Signevich (7/2) edges out Stasevich (4/1) for the top BATE option to put one in the back of the net.

PREDICTION

One of the more interesting things about Chelsea is that they are as capable of grinding down opponents for a 1-0 victory or cruising by them 3-0. This match has the feel of the former given Chelsea’s previous road exploits in group play and the fact Sarri has committed to rotating his players more consistently, evidenced by changing over his back line and finding a way to get Loftus-Cheek involved.

By bringing Kante for Fabregas, it is possible the midfield could be Loftus-Cheek, Kovacic and Kante from left to right. Regardless of the trio, the primary task besides scoring must be to get Olivier Giroud involved in his return. The France international has four assists, tied for the most among Chelsea players — but has yet to open his scoring account.

The fact Chelsea have gone 16 matches without a loss and without a goal from Giroud is a testament not only to the talent the Pensioners have but also just how well they have taken to Sarri’s tactics and how well he has quickly figured out this squad.

Hazard likely will not become a factor in this match until the hour mark, unless Chelsea are trailing at the interval, and then the 45-minute estimation Sarri offered would come into play. Otherwise, this reeks of a blue-collar match in which Chelsea will control the ball similar to the 60 percent possession they had at Stamford Bridge. It would seem less likely Loftus-Cheek will strike for another hat trick, but one goal could be enough to see off the Tractor Boys.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: BATE Borisov 0, Chelsea 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Europa League Match Day 4 Preview — Arsenal (3-0-0, 9, +6) vs. Sporting CP (2-0-1, 6, +2)

Arsenal have a chance to wrap up first place in Group E of the Europa League on Thursday when they attempt a sweep of their home-and-home set against Sporting CP.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Gunners have the maximum nine points through their first three group matches, including a 1-0 road win a fortnight ago on Denny Welbeck’s goal on 78 minutes. That was part of Arsenal’s 11-match winning streak which came to an end in their following contest with a draw at Crystal Palace.

But the unbeaten streak continues and is now at 14 matches (12-2-0) after a 1-1 draw at home versus Liverpool on Saturday. Alexander Lacazette assured the Gunners a split of the points with his equaliser in the 82nd minute, though Arsenal were also the beneficiaries of a disallowed goal that should have been allowed to stand in the first half prior to Liverpool taking the lead through James Milner.

“It was an intense game,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “It was a good game for the fans and we also played very well. I think we deserved to win but the draw is OK because Liverpool are a big team. The way we played was very good.

“I think today we saw that we can play our way against big teams. We controlled Liverpool. We played out from the back. It was not just lucky or lucky things to create from. We played the ball with passes from behind and that’s the way we want to play.”

While it was not a win, many regarded the draw against Liverpool as a positive result since it was a valid measuring stick contest given Arsenal had not played any of England’s “Big Six” since opening the season with losses to Manchester City and Arsenal.

The draw, in which Emery chased the victory late with his attacking substitutions, offered a tangible mark of progress Emery has made in his first season with the club in terms of changing the culture and match preparations of the north London side.

While it took Arsenal 83 minutes to break down Sporting in the reverse fixture, they had the better of the chances in Portugal as they put six of their shots on target before Welbeck notched his winner. The Gunners also did not permit any of Sporting’s 14 shots to trouble Leno, but with the prospects of continuing to mix and match his personnel on the back four due to injuries, Emery is expecting another tough battle.

“Of course the first [target] for us is to finish first in this group,” Emery said at Wednesday’s news conference. “Tomorrow is a very important match because they are second in the table and if we win, we are first in the group. That’s our clear target tomorrow.”

Hector Bellerin shook off a knock that forced him off at halftime of Arsenal’s draw against Crystal Palace to play all 90 minutes versus Liverpool, and it is possible the right back could give way to veteran Stephen Lichtsteiner since Arsenal have a margin of error atop the group. Emery will also get a boost with the expected return of left back Nacho Monreal, who missed the last five contests due to a hamstring injury. Emery was pressed so thin he had moved midfielder Granit Xhaka to left back for a couple of contests.

There likely will be changes across the board to Emery’s first XI, with Guendouzi and Aaron Ramsey potentially reunited as Arsenal’s holding midfielders. There could also be room for Iwobi on the right flank with Welbeck in the playmaking role.

Sporting are in third place in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, two points behind Porto and Braga, but they have won just two of their last five matches in all competitions. Sporting bounced back from a cup elimination at the hands of Estoril Praira with a 2-1 victory at Santa Clara last Sunday.

Bas Dost started Sporting’s rally with a penalty in the 62nd minute before Marcos Acuna grabbed the match-winner on the stroke of the final quarter-hour. It was a welcome return to the starting XI for Bost, whose last start before Sunday came Aug. 28. But as one player returned for Sporting, they are expected to be without midfielder Rodrigo Battaglia, who had to leave Sunday’s win after just 30 minutes.

Jovane Cabral, who appeared as a second-half substitute Sunday, is expected to fill the spot on the right side for Tiago Manuel Matos da Costa Fernandes.

“We know how good a team Arsenal are, especially at home,” the Sporting gaffer said Wednesday. “But we want to bring joy to the supporters that we’re bringing to their stadium. The players have been training fantastically, with a lot of professionalism, and that makes me proud to represent the club in this competition.

“If we make any mistakes, Arsenal will try and punish us. We need to be organised and cohesive. The key is to play for ourselves.”

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are prohibitive favourites to claim all three points and wrap up the top spot in the group with 3/10 odds to win. There are 21/5 odds for a split of the points, and a Sporting victory to keep their hopes of topping the group alive are 9/1.

Oddsmakers are also expecting the Gunners to rack up a few goals, giving them 20/23 odds to win with a total goal count above 2.5. There are also 11/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline to the hosts. Sporting have 16/1 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals and 20/1 for a shock 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. There are 11/2 odds on a low-scoring draw, while oddsmakers give a 2-2 deadlock or higher the same odds on a Sporting victory above 2.5 goals — 16/1.

Lacazette leads a list of nine Arsenal players for first-goal honours before Sporting’s Bas Dost can be found on the betting sheet. The France international has 3/1 odds to make it 1-0 to the Arsenal, closely trailed by Aubameyang at 16/5. Denny Welbeck rounds out the top three slots at 7/2, ahead of Eddie Nketiah (4/1) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Playmakers Ramsey and Ozil are paired together at 13/2, a touch ahead of Emile Smith-Rowe at 7/1.

After Dost, Montero is the next Sporting option for a 0-1 scoreline with 12/1 odds.

Arsenal’s forward tandem of Lacazette and Aubameyang are better than even money to put one in the back of the net during the match, getting 10/11 and 19/20 odds, respectively, to score over the 90 minutes. Welbeck is near even money at 23/20, while Nektiah is 5/4. Mkhitaryan is also below 2/1 odds, checking in with a 13/8 return.

Sporting’s top three options or Bost, Montero and Nani, with Bost leading the way at 14/5, while Montero and the one-time United winger Nani both listed at 7/2.

PREDICTION

With the international break on the horizon, Arsenal must resist the urge to sprint to Sunday’s league contest against struggling Wolverhampton and, as Emery said, “to give a big match our personality.” While it is not the blooding of youth predecessor Arsene Wenger did previously with this tournament, Emery has developed a rotation that has slowly climbed near 20 players who he can count on without a troublesome fall-off.

That will be the case here as Emery could conceivably make as many as nine changes from his Liverpool XI around his central defence pairing of Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi. It likely will not reach that total, but Iwobi is one player who is starting to become a more integral part of the attacking unit behind the primary four as evidenced by his assist on Lacazette’s equaliser.

This could be another chance to steal a rest for some of his league regulars, primarily midfielders Lucas Torreira and Mesut Ozil. Emery has almost always put the right foot forward when it comes to his attacking substitutions, and given Arsenal’s current form, none of his choices on the sidelines are bad ones.

Sporting do not necessarily have to sit back and absorb pressure in this contest — they have a three-point lead over Vorskla for second in the group and already recorded a 2-1 victory at the Hungarian side last month. Sporting also have a solid advantage in goal difference, and another 1-0 loss to the Gunners will be far from the end of the world.

The problem is Arsenal are in far too fine a form to be held to just one goal, especially at home. Look for the Gunners to take care of business and book a spot in the knockout round in relatively easy fashion.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Arsenal 4, Sporting CP 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 4 PREVIEWS:

BATE (1-0-2, 3, -3) vs. Chelsea (3-0-0, 9, +4)

Europa League Match Day 3 Preview — Chelsea (2-0-0, 6, +2) vs. BATE (1-0-1, 3, -1)

Chelsea’s bid to extend their lead atop Group L of the Europa League on Thursday against BATE will be made without Eden Hazard as the Belgium superstar has been ruled out of this contest with a back injury.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Blues have gained the maximum six points through two matches by way of the narrowest scoreline possible, posting 1-0 victories over PAOK and MOL Vidi. Maurizio Sarri is expecting another such challenge from BATE, who are bearing down on their 13th consecutive Belorussian Premier League title as they have a nine-point lead with five league matches remaining.

“In Europe everything is difficult,’ Sarri said at Thursday’s news conference. “The other two games were not easy, so we have to prepare our minds to play another difficult match because this opponent during the season has lost only four times I think and for them the season is going to finish soon. This season they have done better away than at home, so it is not easy.”

Chelsea remained unbeaten in all competitions under their first-year manager but just barely, as Ross Barkley’s goal in the 95th minute Saturday salvaged a 2-2 draw against Manchester United. Antonio Rudiger had the other goal, getting free in space to head home a corner from Willian in the 21st minute. The Blues, though, struggled to cope with a more aggressive United in the second 45 minutes in which Sarri felt his team “lost control of the match” in the final half-hour by straying from the style that has gotten them to third in the table, two points behind Manchester City and Liverpool.

While much has been made of Sarri’s decision to field lineups primarily with senior players not seeing regular Premier League time as opposed to blooding the youth of Chelsea’s academy, this may be a match where Sarri’s decision to go in that direction requires those players at the bottom of the 18-man roster on Premier League matchdays to step forward.

Sarri has ruled out both Hazard and playmaker Jorginho. The former has a back injury, while the latter is being rested after featuring in both matches during international duty for Italy before logging the full match versus United.

‘This match is not a big problem, because we have to play five days after the last match,” Sarri explained in his Wednesday news conference. “The problem will be on Sunday as we have to play after 65 hours, so we need to change something. We need to think and be careful. For instance Jorginho needs to rest now as he played two 90 minutes in two match for the Italy national team and then nearly 100 minutes in our last game, so it is time to rest for him.

“(Thursday) Eden Hazard is out for sure. He has a back problem. We are trying to solve the problem for Sunday, I think it is not very easy, and the other one out is Ethan Ampadu because of a knee injury. That was suffered on international duty with Wales.”

It appears Sarri will turn over his entire back line as Emerson, Andreas Christensen, Gary Cahill and Davide Zappacosta are all in line for a start, though regular left back Marcos Alonso made news Wednesday by putting pen to paper on a five-year extension to stay at Stamford Bridge through 2023.

Jorginho’s absence means Cesc Fabregas will be pulling the strings in the midfield, while midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek is healthy and could see his first action for Chelsea since Sept. 12.

Up front, either Willian or Victor Moses is expected to slot into Hazard’s spot on the left, and Olivier Giroud likely will lead the line as Sarri continues to vacillate between the France international and Alvaro Morata depending on who has the better form for league play.

Morata and Willian have Chelsea’s Europa League goals, while keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga has needed to make just four saves for his two clean sheets.

BATE have split their first two group matches, winning 2-0 at MOL Vidi before being overrun 4-1 at home by Greek side PAOK earlier this month. The Tractor Boys avoided a third consecutive loss in all competitions Saturday, edging Gorodeya 3-2 at home. Maksim Skavysh rescued the win for BATE in the 86th minute after they had squandered a 2-0 lead built on goals by Hervaine Mekontso and Nikolai Sihnevich on either side of halftime.

While BATE prefer to use a 4-3-3 formation, it is more likely they will morph into a 4-5-1 in an attempt to stifle Chelsea’s movement. Skavysh and Igor Stasevich share the team lead with seven goals in all competitions, with Nikolai Signevich and Mirko Ivanic contributing six apiece.

BATE are well aware of the presence Giroud brings in the penalty area as the centre-forward scored in both Europa League group matches against them last season playing for Arsenal. The Tractor Boys were given a drumming in their last visit to London as the Gunners smashed six by them without reply in a dead rubber to complete group play.

Their only other match in England was a 1-0 victory at Everton in group play in 2009-10.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are decisive favourites to retain their 100 percent Europa League record with 2/15 odds for a victory. The odds of a draw are 7/1, while BATE are 22/1 longshots to claim their first win in England in nine years.

Despite their narrow victories to open group play, oddsmakers are still expecting Chelsea to score goals in this contest. They have 4/7 odds to post a victory while scoring more than 2.5 goals, while a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline checks in with 12/5 odds. A split of the points via a 0-0 or 1-1 final has 17/2 odds, while victories for BATE offer a 45/1 return for under 2.5 goals and 50/1 over that threshold.

Almost all of Chelsea’s expected roster are expected to score the first goal of the match, led by strikers Morata (13/5) and Giroud (14/5). Pedro, Willian, and Callum Hudson-Odoi are all joint-third at 9/2, with Victor Moses (5/1) and Barkley (13/2) rounding out the top seven to make it 1-0. BATE’s top options to create a 0-1 scoreline are Signevich and Jasse Touminen at 18/1, which is slightly longer than there being no goal-scorer in the match (16/1).

Oddsmaker expect a Chelsea striker to score as both Morata (4/6) and Giroud (3/4) are better than even money selections. Pedro and Willian are just off that pace — both have 5/4 odds to find the back of the net — while Hudson-Odoi (11/8), Moses (6/4) and Barkley (15/8) are all better than 2/1 choices.

For the Tractor Boys, Tumoinen and Signevich are joint top-options at 5/1, with Moukam and Mikhail Gordejchuk just behind them at 11/2.

PREDICTION

It is unfair to label Sarri’s decision to hold out both Hazard and Jorginho “a risk,” especially with Hazard dealing with a back issue, but the moves fairly raise the question of how Chelsea maintain their continuity and rhythm offensively without their metronome (Jorginho) and impresario (Hazard).

In theory, there should not be much fall-off in the former because Fabregas is fully capable of directing an offence, and the Pensions should see a lion’s share of the possession that takes full advantage of his passing strengths to thread creases in BATE’s lines. It is the movement and nous of Hazard in the final third where it could take time for Chelsea to unlock the final third — they will undoubtedly have industry in Giroud, and it may be a case where Chelsea go outside-in from the flanks to wreak havoc and wear down BATE by way of crosses pumped into the box to earn corners and then score via set pieces.

The other expected decision to replace the entire back four is also an intriguing one, but it is also one that makes sense given Cahill is the only one who has played with the first-team back line as an injury replacement, and that was all for 21 minutes. Sometimes defenders work better in units, and the projected back four for this match gets a chance to prove that for a second straight contest.

BATE will have some confidence gleaned from their road victory at VOL Midi — they ended a 12-match road winless streak (0-2-10) in European competitions — but the Tractor Boys will likely get plowed here by a Chelsea side that should win their first three group matches in European competitions for the first time since the 2010-11 Champions League.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, BATE 0.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Sporting CP (2-0-0) vs. Arsenal (2-0-0)

Europa League Match Day 3 Preview — Sporting CP (2-0-0, 6, +3) vs. Arsenal (2-0-0, 6, +5)

In the span of less than three months, Arsenal have gone for having near zero expectations under new manager Unai Emery to the new boss pleading to supporters not to get carried away after arguably their most impressive victory of the season that also extended the Gunners’ run to 10 on the trot.

Such is the fickle nature in north London as Arsenal face Portuguese side Sporting CP on Thursday in a top of the table clash in Group E of the Europa League.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Arsenal are fourth in the table on 21 points, bookended by London rivals Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur while lurking two points behind reigning champions Manchester City and Liverpool. The Gunners have scored 22 goals in league play, second only to City (26), and that has carried over to Europa League action, where they have bagged seven more in their two wins to lead Group E on goal difference.

The 10-match winning streak in all competitions is Arsenal’s longest such run since reeling off 11 victories on the bounce from Jan. 10-March 30, 2004, part of the dominant run of the “Invincibles” who were the last team to navigate an entire Premier League season undefeated.

Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leicester City on Monday evoked memories of that famous side, with slick passing and a flowing offence that shook off a sluggish first half-hour to put on a master class of football in the final 60 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a brace for the second straight match while Mesut Ozil had a goal and set up Aubameyang’s second goal on 66 minutes.

“I don’t have to tell you he’s a good player, he has shown that for the past years,” defender Shkodran Mustafi told Arsenal’s official website of Ozil, “and when you give him the opportunity to  play in his favourite position just behind the striker he is capable of doing anything and I think he showed he can assist, score goals and make us look very dangerous going forward.”

Ozil’s play was what Gunners supporters have been longing for from the former Germany international, whose inconsistencies at times have been maddening to watch and arguably contributed to Arsenal slipping to second-tier status in recent years. But while the wins are piling up, Emery has warned against thinking Arsenal are now title contenders.

“It was very important for us to beat Leicester because they’re not far behind us. Now we’ve created a lot of distance with the teams behind us,” the gaffer said. “Now in front we are looking at teams like Liverpool, like Manchester City, like Chelsea, but it’s not important to think about the end. We need to think about the next match against Crystal Palace on Sunday and I also think the Europa League is very important on Thursday.”

To that end, Emery looks like he will not mess too much with a good thing, most notably leaving the red-hot Aubameyang in his first XI. He has five goals and an assist in his last four matches, and the four goals in the last two contests have come in a span of 89 minutes.

While keeper Petr Cech has been cleared to play, he did not accompany the team on this trip as Bernd Leno will again be between the sticks. That, however, may change for Arsenal’s league match against Palace since Cech had been the No. 1 in Premier League play.

There is also the chance of a Uruguay reunion on the field as Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira and Sporting defender Sebastian Coates could meet. Both were instrumental in helping La Celeste reach the quarterfinals in the World Cup this summer in Russia, where they lost to eventual champions France. Torreira’s dogged play in the midfield in front of Uruguay’s back four was a key factor in Arsenal signing the 22-year-old.

Sporting have claimed the maximum six points in their group matches with a 2-0 home victory over Qarabag and a 2-1 triumph at Vorskla in their most recent Europa League encounter earlier this month. The Portuguese side are fifth domestically on 13 points, four back of Benfica and Braga, and are still rebuilding to a degree after supporters attacked players and staff at the end of last season for failing to qualify for the Champions League.

That led many players — most notably goalkeeper and Portugal No. 1 Rui Patricio — to cancel their contracts with the club and seek work elsewhere. While they have yet to face Arsenal in league play, Patricio has caught the attention of the Premier League in helping promoted Wolverhampton reach the top half of the table thus far.

The Verde e Brancos have lost two of their last three league matches and are coming off a 4-2 defeat at Portimonense last Saturday, shipping four goals in a domestic match or the first time since a 4-1 cup defeat to Benfica in 2010. Sporting twice pulled within one goal in the second half, first through Fredy Montero and again through Coates on 88 minutes, but a stoppage-time marker by Portimonense put the contest out of reach.

Sporting have missed Patricio to a degree, recording three clean sheets in their 10 overall matches while conceding 10 goals. Patricio had 20 shutouts in 48 matches across all competitions in 2017-18.

Montero, one-time Manchester United winger Nani and Jovane Cabral share the team lead in scoring with three goals, and Cabral has bagged two of his coming off the bench in just 24 minutes of Europa League action. Bruno Fernandes has yet to show the scintillating form that led to 15 goals and 14 assists in all competitions last season, but he does have two goals and two assists in Sporting’s nine matches.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Arsenal are clear favourites to return to London with three points and the Group E lead as they have 19/20 odds to post a victory. The odds of the teams remaining level on points through a draw are 5/2, while Sporting have 11/4 odds to pull off a surprise and take the group lead for a fortnight before the return encounter at the Emirates.

The Gunners have 2/1 odds to win this match with more than 2.5 goals and 15/4 odds to be victorious via 0-1 or 0-2 scoreline. That is slightly longer than a low-scoring draw (7/2), and Sporting odds to claim all three points in a match of three goals (5/1) is slightly better than two or fewer (7/1).

There is no lack of options for first goal-scorers among Arsenal players as Welbeck, Lacazette and Aubameyang all share joint honours at 4/1. Gunners teenage striker Eddie Nketiah is just behind his more seasoned teammates at 5/1, and Mkhitaryan rounds out the top five to give the Londoners a 0-1 lead at 11/2. Bas Dost is the top choice for the hosts at 6/1 to open the scoring, while Abdoulaye Diaby and Fredy Montero are right behind him at 13/2.

Lacazette and Aubameyang have some separation from Welbeck for scoring at any point during the 90 minutes, sharing top billing at 7/5 compared to Welbeck’s 6/4 odds. Nketiah lurks slightly further back at 7/4, and Mkhitaryan again completes the top five options with 2/1 odds on an anytime goal. Aaron Ramsey and fellow Arsenal teenager Emile Smith-Rowe offer 21/10 odds on a goal, and Bost again leads the pack of Sporting options at 11/5.

PREDICTION

While it’s not the “rainy Tuesday night in Stoke” test, this match does represent a step up in class of competition for Arsenal, who it can be argued were favourites to win all 10 of their matches during this winning streak.

Still, the groundswell of support the Gunners are enjoying during the honeymoon period under Emery is a welcome change to the clashing factions under predecessor Arsene Wenger. With each victory in each passing week, the distance grows between the culture of Arsenal’s past under the Frenchman and the one Emery is creating like a meticulous mason building a foundation.

Ozil’s sprinkle of magic dust, however, is what could lift Arsenal to that next level. It may not be title-contention worthy as there is still a noticeable gulf in class between the Gunners and both Manchester City and Liverpool, and Chelsea to a lesser extent, but a top-four finish is definitely there for the taking.

They were irresistible in that hour against the Foxes, but it was the fact it was only an hour still gives pause to Arsenal being a juggernaut. Leicester took a deserved lead in that first 30 minutes, and arguably could have grabbed a second before Arsenal swung the match.

Sporting have the attacking depth to give Arsenal’s back line a severe test, especially through the middle with Fernandes and Montero, along with Nani on the right. Nani had two goals and an assist in eight career matches versus Arsenal, but more importantly, his teams were 6-1-1 in those contests.

This is a contest where Sporting can begin to re-establish the club’s identity following the disastrous spring occurrences, and a draw between the sides to set up a return engagement in London in a fortnight for the top of the group seems like the most likely outcome.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Sporting CP 1, Arsenal 1.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 3 PREVIEWS:

Chelsea (2-0-0) vs. BATE (1-0-1)

Europa League Match Day 2 Preview: Chelsea (1-0-0, +1, 1-0) vs. MOL Vidi FC (0-0-1, -2, 0-2)

After a highly productive week in which Chelsea proved themselves worthy of being counted among the Premier League title contenders, Maurizio Sarri’s team look to keep the good times rolling Thursday when they host Hungarian side MOL Vidi FC at Stamford Bridge.

POTENTIAL XIs

Chelsea enjoyed a blazing start under Sarri, winning their first six matches in all competitions that included a workmanlike 1-0 victory at Greek side PAOK. But some doubts were raised after a dour 0-0 draw at West Ham United in which the Blues’ 4-3-3 attack was largely stymied by a disciplined Irons side in two banks of four.

Some could argue West Ham deserved a victory and let Chelsea off the hook when Andriy Yarmolenko missed a sitter of a header late. The competition level ramped up again with a pair of matches against Champions League runners-up Liverpool, one in the Carabao Cup and another in league play in which the full depth of Sarri’s squad would be tested.

In the Carabao Cup, Chelsea ended Liverpool’s 100 percent run with a 2-1 victory at Anfield, with Eden Hazard providing the razor-thin margin of separation with a jaw-dropping individual effort for the match-winner on 85 minutes, tearing through half of Liverpool’s defence before beating Simon Mingolet.

The Premier League tussle in London provided more of the high-quality football that showed Chelsea are definitely among those who can ask questions of the league’s best, including reigning champions Manchester City. Hazard continued terrorising opposing differences, racing onto an exquisite through ball by Mateo Kovacic and beat Alisson across goal inside the right corner on 25 minutes.

This time, however, the world-class goal belonged to Liverpool, who received a stunning equaliser by Daniel Sturridge, whose left-footed rocket from 25 yards found the perfect spot of space over the outstretched hand of Kepa Arrizabalaga and just underneath the upper right 90 in the 89th minute as the sides split the points in a highly entertaining 1-1 draw.

After two high-intensity matches, Sarri has signaled he is going to turn over a good portion of his starting XI for this match so they can rest ahead of Sunday’s clash at Southampton. Conceivably, the Italian manager can overturn his entire lineup from the one that drew Liverpool, but there is a definite curiosity for him to try out Cesc Fabregas in Jorginho’s role as the deep-lying midfielder who doubles as the hub of all offence.

“Cesc did very well in the last 30 minutes in Greece and very well for 90 minutes in Liverpool,” Sarri told the club’s official website, referring to the Spaniard’s effort in the Carabao Cup. “He has to improve his physical condition of course but he is a great option in this position. Cesc is very good in moving the ball, like Jorginho, more than Jorginho, so we don’t need to change the style of football with Fabregas.”

Chelsea’s midfield could get an entire makeover, with Ross Barkley and Ruben Loftus-Cheek also likely to feature on either side of Fabregas. For the latter, it has been a disappointing lack of playing time after contributing to England’s run to the World Cup semifinal as a bustling midfielder off the bench.

Loftus-Cheek, a full-time starter last season on loan at Crystal Palace and had wanted to return to Selhurst Park knowing his spot was still there, has played just 33 minutes in two appearances and has not played in Chelsea’s last five matches due to both injuries and Sarri’s preferences.

Barkley, on the other hand, has flourished under the Italian’s tutelage and emerged as Kovacic’s understudy on the left side of the midfield in Chelsea’s 4-3-3 formation. He is hoping to get a call-up to England’s national side for the upcoming international break — potentially at Loftus-Cheek’s expense — and praised the coach for elevating his technical understanding of the game.

“Over the years I haven’t been coached much and I am at an age now where I understand football a lot more and I know how important it is to take the different tactics from different managers on board,” Barkley told The Times. “I feel like right now I am ready to understand every aspect of the game.

“When I broke into the Everton side under Roberto Martínez, I was playing in the No 10 role and I had never played there before from when I was developing through the academy to the first team. I was getting used to that role as a first-team player but usually I was a No 8 or, before I broke my leg, I was a deep-lying midfield player. I have always been a centre midfielder, either in a two or a three, and now I am in a three and I feel really comfortable with that.”

MOL Vidi, formerly known as Videoton before changing sponsors in the offseason, are at the bottom of Group L after opening with a 2-0 loss to BATE Borisov. Vidi are currently third in the domestic table through eight matches, eight points adrift of Ferencavros, and have won three contests on the bounce heading into this meeting.

They are coming off a 1-0 victory at Diosygor on Sunday, riding a 69th-minute goal by Szabolcs Huszti. Vidi talisman Juhasz Roland is making his first appearance in England in over a decade, last doing so with Belgian side Anderlecht, and is excited to see how his side stacks up with one of Europe’s heavyweight clubs.

“I was here around 13 years ago with Anderlecht, but so much has changed since then. I was at the start of my career back then, and I am now heading towards the end,” said Roland, the 35-year-old defender with two goals on the season, to the club’s official website. “I am pleased that I can be here again, which is why I signed for Vidi back then. Chelsea are the favourites but we can measure where we are against them. We must be fully focused throughout and if we are not, we will be punished. We want to enjoy every minute of the game.”

Vidi have scored 16 goals in league play, with Huszti and Marko Scepovic pacing the side with three goals apiece. Marko’s younger brother Stefan has also bagged a goal for the Hungary squad.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Chelsea are overwhelming favourites to win and stay unbeaten at 1/12 odds. Even a split of the points seems like a far-fetched fantasy to oddsmakers, who have installed a draw at 10/1 odds, which is far shorter than a shock scoreline of Vidi winning, which is 22/1.

Oddsmakers are expecting Chelsea to run rampant, even with a second-choice lineup, as a hosts win with more than 2.5 goals has 4/11 odds. Even a soft 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline in favour of Chelsea has a 7/2 return. The odds of a 0-0 or 1-1 draw are a distant 12/1, which pales in comparison to a Vidi win with more than 2.5 goals (60/1) or less (70/1). Chelsea are also getting 6/10 odds to win with a clean sheet.

Alvaro Morata is one of three Chelsea players listed at 11/4 to score the match’s first goal, but the Spaniard is the only expected starter of the trio as both Hazard and Olivier Giroud join him. In fact, 14 of 16 potential Chelsea outfield players are listed as more likely to score the first goal of this contest before finding Marko Scepovic on the toteboard at 16/1.

A whopping four Chelsea players are better than even money to score during this match, with Pedro (5/6) joining the aforementioned trio of Morata (4/7), Giroud (4/7) and frontrunner Hazard (8/15). Another two — Willian and Callam Hudson-Odoi — are even money. Scepovic is again Vidi’s top option at a more modest 4/1 to help his side avoid a shutout.

PREDICTION

This will be a case of Chelsea being able to “veni and vici” Vidi, with the only question the margin of victory. It is a chance for Sarri to see his full squad and also see who is absorbing the new system he has installed beyond his top 13 outfield players since Barkley, Pedro and Morata are pigeonholed as his primary three substitutes in his 18-man group.

In a bigger picture, this is a very important match for Loftus-Cheek, who may be better served leaving the squad in January via transfer given how well-defined this squad is in order to make sure he does not fall too far down the pecking order for Gareth Southgate’s England squad. It also is a chance for Fabregas to prove his worth to Sarri, who has taken the same tack he did with Hazard earlier in this season regarding conditioning in adjusting to his higher-tempo style.

So in a perfect world, Chelsea win comfortably, no one gets injured and Sarri only has things to nit-pick about as opposed to worry his lessons are not taking hold. With the international break coming after Sunday’s match versus Southampton, Chelsea have an excellent opportunity to remain unbeaten during that sojourn, and it starts with this match.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 4, Vidi 0.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 2 PREVIEWS:

Qarabag FK (0-0-1) vs. Arsenal (1-0-0)

 

 

 

Europa League Match Day 2 Preview: FK Qarabag (0-0-1, -2, 0-2) vs. Arsenal (1-0-0, +2, 4-2)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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).

PREDICTION

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.

OTHER EUROPA LEAGUE MATCH DAY 2 PREVIEWS:

Chelsea (1-0-0) vs. MOL Vidi FC (0-0-1)