27 September 2017

One man's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk...

After a fine run of form during which we've gone undefeated in five consecutive matches, including a stout visit to Stamford Bridge, we journey east beyond familiar borders. While it's true that a trip to Turkey to face Beşiktaş or Ludogorets in the Champions League is a longer trip, it's something else to make a trip to Belarus to face BATE Borisov in the Europa League. For one thing, there all those capital letters in the club's name. At least they don't have any accents dangling or protruding. For another, there's the weather. If we're lucky, it'll be 10℃ (50℉). For another, it's Europa League play—still exotic if not quite erotic. At any rate, we have a chance to slam the door shut on Group H with a win on Thursday.

Before we get to the match itself, it's well-worth dispelling any rumours around the idea that Belarus is somehow so foreign that Gooners can ridicule or deride it. If nothing else, a cult-hero in Alexander Hleb spent enough time at Arsenal to score ten goals before going for an ice cream and ending up at Barcelona, after which his career melted away like so much, um—what's the metaphor I'm seeking?

Anyway, it's a strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk, and it's one that Hleb made. If it turned out to be the road less followed, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles. Or something along those lines.

Speaking of Hleb's peregrination from London to Milan to Barcelona to various hinterlands, Arsène weighed in:
I would say at the time when [Hleb] left for Barcelona, they were the best team in the world by a distance. You can understand that he was tempted to do it. It was not the right decision for him because he didn’t have the career after, and I think it had a negative impact on his career...He was a great, great player but he played on the same side as Lionel Messi. That is nearly an impossible task for every player in the world. He’s coming to visit us. [I will ask him] is he happy and what is he doing. It’s not easy when you have such a long career to have as much an interesting life as when you play.
Indeed. It wouldn't be the first or last time that a Gunner left for what seemed like greener pastures only to find barren grounds instead.

As to the match itself, Arsenal have a bit of an inside track on advancing to the knock-out stage, and that's not just by virtue of having already beaten FC Köln (at the rate we're going, I'm almost starting to pity Red Star Belgrade. Where is the sentimental link between us and them?). Hleb's former club went into Belgrade and barely scraped out a draw, and it's at this point that I'd like to drag out some UEFA coefficients. These numbers, keep in mind, measure each club's success in Champions League and Europa League play over the previous five seasons.

For the sake of comparisons, Hull's coefficient is 14.592 and West Ham's is 15.592. While we've done quite well against them, it would be a mistake to waltz in and assume that we can simply seize all three. BATE Borisov's coefficient is 21.075, still on a par with more-familiar English opponents, and we shouldn't make too much of their inability to win in Belgrade, even if Red Star's coefficient is a palty 6.85. While we're still finding ourselves, barely eight matches into our season, the Zholto-Sinie (Yellow-Blues) have already played 23 matches in the Belarussian Premier League, thanks to its schedule, which kicks off on 1 April and ends 25 November. I wonder why that it is.

Ah, yes. It's colder than a witch's teat in Belarus from November 'til April. It might even be colder than a ticket-taker's smile at the Ivar Theater on a Saturday night—but that's another story for another time.

At any rate, these Yellow-Blues are at full-throttle. They've been obliterating domestic opponents to the tune of a +33 goal-difference, having scored 44 and conceded 11 in 23 matches. They currently sit third in the Belarusian Premier League with seven matches left to play. One player to watch will be Mikhail Gordejchuk; he's scored 30 goals in 37 league appearances.

Without underestimating our hosts, this really is a match that we should win. We've shown more determination if not ruthlessness in recent weeks, enough to see us eke out another positive result. When it's all said and done, we should expect to leave Belarus with all three points and a clear path to the next round.

Scoreline prediction? BATE Borisov 0-3 Arsenal.