Europa League Preview: The Round of 32

Thursday evening’s Europa League clash with Ostersund hardly seems like the perfect tonic to pick Arsenal’s players up after a disappointing defeat in the north London derby last weekend, but it should be.

The second tier European competition remains the Gunners’ best hope of Champions League football next season, emulating Manchester United’s success in the competition last season to take their place in the group stages of the main event next year.

It may well seem like the consolation prize that Arsenal didn’t really want this year, but their failures in the league make it simply a must-win tournament if they’re to get back into the competition they really want to be in next season – barring an incredible Premier League run between now and the end of the campaign.

It remains to be seen what sort of side the Gunners will put out, however, which will affect the Europa League betting. So far this campaign, Arsene Wenger has fielded a weakened side in each of his Europa League encounters, but Arsenal did still manage to top their group and qualify to the knockout rounds. Given the importance of the competition to Arsenal this season, you’d expect a change in that policy during the next phase of the tournament, but the French manager’s stubbornness is one of football’s great monuments, and it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise if a somewhat second string side started the game on Thursday evening.

That said, the arrival of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang may have brought in reinforcements, but the Gabon international will be cup-tied in the Europa League. This would, in other circumstances, mean a chance for the Alexandre Lacazette to shine and win back his place. But his injury only makes the Gunners’ January transfer business look slightly off when it comes to their European commitments: with Lacazette now out with a knee injury, and both Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott shipped out of the club, their new record signing’s cup-tied status now seems like a bigger blow than it might otherwise have been.

Aubameyang hasn’t played in the Europa League this season, but his former club Borussia Dortmund were knocked out of the Champions League after finishing third in Tottenham Hotspur’s group, and because the German giants are now a club competing in the same tournament as Arsenal, he will not be able to feature for his new club in Europe this season.

Dortmund along with Atletico Madrid and Italian sides Napoli and Lazio are all considered the strongest teams Arsenal will have to beat if they are to win the competition this season, though none of those modern powerhouse names of European competition appear to be too bothered about the Europa League, with Atletico and Napoli in particular focusing much of their efforts on domestic form.

Lazio, too, might find themselves looking more to action in the league than in Europe. This season, Serie A’s top four sides will gain a Champions League place and as Lazio currently sit in fifth, just a point behind their bitter city rivals Roma, they will likely be fighting on more than one front.

Perhaps, then, that makes and Dortmund the most threatening side for Arsenal in this competition. The Germans have to face difficult and motivated opposition this week in Atalanta, the Italian side who helped knock Everton out in the group stages, and that should give a good indicator of just how seriously they are taking it: fielding a weakened side against a team they can’t take for granted would show the world just how much they care.

Arsenal have to get through their own tie first, however. Ostersund, managed by Englishman, have risen through the leagues to get to their first ever European adventure and will be up for the challenge having drawn one of the world’s biggest teams.

The Gunners should have more than enough to wipe the floor with the Swedes in this tie, but they’ll have to take it seriously if they’re to progress: if there’s one thing that spells danger for Arsenal, it’s a highly-motivated underdog up against an arrogant and disinterested Wenger side.