Source: Arsenal via Facebook.
For the first time in two decades, Arsenal will not be a participant in the UEFA Champions League. In staying on as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger has endeared himself yet further in the eyes of the majority of the Emirates faithful. Conversely, he has also incensed the ever-growing faction of Arsenal fans that crave a new face in the dugout, with fresh ideas and a clear vision for the coming generations. With the teams that did qualify for next season’s Champions League set to grow ever stronger, Wenger may need to bank on a Europa League triumph, and gain qualification to the Champions League via that route.
Once more, free from the distraction of international football, Arsenal have prepared well for the upcoming season. A tour of Australia will enable Wenger’s men to bond and release their wrath upon opposition that could be considered equal to a few teams that are guaranteed to be in the Europa League group stage, but amongst the lowest seeded sides. In playing a number of reserves against A-League opposition, Wenger will know exactly how ready his rotation players are for the likes of Zorya Luhansk and FC Lugano. These are potential ‘banana skins’ that could disrupt Arsenal’s bid for Europa League success, as reflected by odds (as of 16 June 2017) of 10/1 from Paddy Power for Arsenal to win the competition outright. In winning the Europa League, Arsenal would have a first European trophy since the 1994 Cup Winners Cup.
Following on from the Australian tour is the first match of an International Champions Cup pre-season tournament. Red, white and neutral alike, every cynical follower of football culture on social media believes that Arsenal’s ICC run will end at the first hurdle, against a Bayern Munich side they are seemingly incapable of beating. Then Arsenal will face two opponents that will provide the greatest reflection yet of the Gunners’ readiness for a Europa League run – namely, Benfica and Sevilla.
Benfica will only meet Arsenal in European competition, for the first time in 27 years, if they finish third in their Champions League group and join them in the Europa League group stage. Three years ago, Arsenal used home advantage against Benfica as they will aspire to this summer, beating the current champions of Portugal 5-1 and making a real statement of intent after yet another fourth-placed finish. One player that Arsenal will ignore at their peril is Mexican striker Raul Jimenez, with the 26-year old hitting seven goals in nineteen appearances last season.
It only gets harder for Arsenal, with a Sevilla side now managed by Eduardo Berizzo visiting the Emirates a day later. It will be the first meeting between the sides in ten years, with each club winning its group stage home game against the other in the 2007/08 Champions League. In the interim, Sevilla have won three European trophies in consecutive years, while Arsenal – as already noted – have won none. Sevilla manager Berizzo will undoubtedly make life difficult for Wenger. Notably, he recently transformed Celta Vigo from a struggling side to Europa League semi-finalists in the space of just two years.
Semi-competitive though the Emirates Cup is, only lifting it will put Arsenal in the frame of mind they must occupy to make 2017/18 a success, especially with the Gunners having the fillip of home advantage.