Arsenal may have been without Alexandre Lacazette yesterday evening due to suspension, but at least they had a playing surface worthy of the name. Unai Emery opted for a back four, which made room for an extra attacking player. That would have been a choice between the newly arrived Denis Suarez, the soon to depart Aaron Ramsey and the out of favour Mesut Ozil. The latter got the chance to start a match for the first time in ages. Whether or not he did enough to convince the manager to retain him should he return to a five at the back formation we’ll probably find out on Sunday. Given Ozil may not be match fit after so long out in the cold could justify rotation as a reason to bench him.
BATE, as expected, did not offer regular danger, but early in the game, they certainly had a couple of very decent opportunities, the best of which was cleared off the line by Lichtsteiner. Arsenal were one up by this time, courtesy of an own goal, but everyone was aware of the implications of a BATE goal, after Emery’s team had failed to secure an away goal of their own in the first leg. There was one very decent chance just before for which they might have been punished by a better striker, but after that, the home side regained control of the game as BATE sat back. A 1-0 scoreline was parity and offered the a penalty shoot out if they could hold on.
I was pleasantly surprised at the number of physical attendees. I reckon it may have been around 32,000. Sure, there were a lot of empty seats, as expected, given the 5.55pm kick off time and a general lack of enthusiasm about Thursday evenings and the Europa League. But many had managed to get out of work in time to reach the stadium by kick off.
Things got more comfortable with a second goal, as Mustafi met a corner to bullet his header into the net. It certainly didn’t make the tie safe. A BATE goal would see the Belarussian team through to the next round. But if Arsenal were to concede now, at least they would only need to score once more to win the tie.
Half time came without the concession of a late goal, and no requirement to make any half-time subs. Arsenal made it safe with a third goal courtesy of Sokratis, who replaced Mustafi, scoring a header from another corner. It is perhaps significant that, creatively, the three goals came from two set pieces and an own goal. I guess you could argue this was a consequence of pressure, but with Ozil on the pitch it would have been nice to see more chances opened up. As it was a lot of the attempts on goals were distant pot shots, often from Granit Xhaka. His first brought about a good save, but the rest were woeful. Still, it is good to see the team shooting from range. If they were more accurate, there might have been rebounds. Guendouzi came very close to scoring a pearl from outside the box that went tantalizingly wide.
Alex Hleb started the game last week, but was on the bench yesterday. He made his entrance in the second half with the score still at 2-0 and got a warm reception from the home crowd. It was a good moment. The whole game hung on whether or not BATE would score to make life uncomfortable for their hosts, but the fact they didn’t in the end meant this was a fairly unexciting contest. Arsenal’s football rarely set the crowd alight, although in mitigation BATE’s own lack of ambition did contribute to this. They are still effectively in their off-season and not at full pelt.
So no big shock, a case of job done and onto the next one. We wait to see what the draw brings for the round of 16. One thing that I think everyone would have seen was Emery’s joy at the Arsenal goals. This competition has a lot to do with how he established his reputation and I am pretty sure he won’t be treating it lightly going forward.
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