Europa League Roundup: Thoughts On the Round Of 32
Ah yes, the rarified air of the Europa League knockout stage, Round of 32. Can you feel it Gooners? If you aren’t going to tell your grandkids about the time your beloved club shared a stage with such world powers as FC Astana and FC Victoria Plzen (those are Kazakh and Czech clubs, respectively, for those who haven’t already opened a new tab to look that up), then what is this sport all about anyway? Arsenal have drawn Swedish top-flight newcomers, Ostersunds FK, in their first match, and will go into the encounter heavily favoured. OFK first broke into the Allsvenskan in 2016, and as many in the press have noted, are a younger club than Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal is long, coming on the last day of the Frenchman’s first month in charge in North London.
We have asked a panel of our writers to give their thoughts on the draw, from the Gunners aspirations to some youngsters that we think might still feature in the latter stages.
Art de Roché
Well, the draw has been very kind to us but as usual, I don’t think we should take Ostersunds FK for granted. Even though they’re one of the smaller teams in the competition, we’ve experienced some embarrassments recently which makes me wary.
However, even with the embarrassments of Bradford, etc we really should be advancing to the Round of 16 and this should be another good chance to field youngsters like Reiss Nelson, so bring it on!
Considering that we could have faced Napoli or Lyon in the knockout stages, Arsenal should consider themselves lucky that the only thing they have to deal with is playing in -7°C in the middle of Sweden. Ostersunds FK didn’t enjoy the greatest campaign in the Allsvenskan (5th) and will be deep into their preseason when we meet in February, so Arsenal should at least have a leg up in match fitness. One to watch is midfielder Ken Sema, who received his first cap for Sweden back in January. Of Congolese descent, he is a great dribbler and one with a real eye for a defence-splitting through ball that led to four goals and seven assists over 24 league appearances in 2017. Overall, Arsenal should comfortably sail into the round of 16 and give much-deserved first-team minutes to our youth academy products.
Robert Hay Jr.
The draw for Arsenal is an intriguing one. Rather than be drawn against a struggling recognizable name like Dortmund or Napoli, they are facing a motivated club from a smaller league with a manager desperate to prove himself to a wider audience. While the travel is nicer than somewhere like Belgrade or Ukraine, this may have been one of the toughest possible draws for Arsenal. They certainly cannot sleepwalk their way through this like they did at times in the group stage.
We know this competition isn’t going to be about how Arsenal do against Ostersunds FK, but rather how far they can go. Unfortunately (or typically, depending on how fatalistic a Gooner you happen to be) this competition is going to be about the latter stages, with as strong a group of teams as have graced the competition in years. Borussia Dortmund (who have just hired Peter Stoger, the architect of Koln’s 1-0 triumph over Arsenal in the group stage), Atletico Madrid, Napoli, RB Leipzig, and others will present a very real challenge should Arsenal draw them later. Still, it’s hard not to favour the Gunners to go far in this competition, especially if they have doubts over their top 4 credentials in the Premier League later in the year. Look for Arsenal to make the semi-finals, where we can reassess the remaining field and talk about our chances of winning!
5 Prospects Who Could Still Feature – Matthew Freedman
Reiss Nelson (Age 18)
Nelson has caught the eye of a lot of people. He began making a name for himself in U23’s matches which he still, of course, plays in. People started to recognise the youngster when he started to play in pre-season friendlies. He started against Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and instantly made a name for himself. He normally starts as a right-back in the senior squad which surprises many people as fans say they prefer him as a striker which is where he plays the majority of his U23 games.
Eddie Nketiah (Age 18)
Eddie Nketiah was rejected by Chelsea for being too small. The 18-year-old turned out to be the hero for Arsenal after scoring with his first touch against Norwich City in the Carabao Cup. That goal took the game to extra time and he then scored again to win the game for the gunners and send them through to the next round. He has also played in the Europa League coming on as a substitute in most games such as Koln, BATE Borisov and Belgrade. He is very well known for being the first player born after Arsene Wenger’s arrival to score for the club.
Joe Willock (Age 18)
The 18-year-old can play on both wings, and is the youngest brother of former gunner Chris Willock who is now at Benfica, and Matty Willock who plays for Manchester United’s academy. Joe burst onto the scene in pre-season as well as Nelson. He also started in both Emirates Cup games against Benfica and Sevilla. Wenger quoted, “his composure and confidence on the ball is brilliant, he can only improve the way he plays.”
Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Age 20)
Unlike some of the others, Maitland-Niles has had some experience in other leagues. He previously played in the first team for Ipswich Town in the Championship. Wenger likes to play him literally anywhere. He has played at centre-back, left-back, right-back and in defensive midfield. Wenger has even compared him to Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira!
Matt Macey (Age 23)
Macey has been at the club since 2014. He has been sent out on loan twice to Accrington Stanley and Luton Town. Despite being at the club for almost 4 years the big man between the sticks made his senior debut this season against Norwich when Nketiah was the hero. He featured in the first team against Belgrade where he made some terrific saves which led to a clean sheet for the youngster. He aims to be Arsenal’s starter and skipper.