Arsenal v FC Koln
Thursday September 14, 20:05
Live on BT Sport 2
Gunners in need of a statement to placate angry fans
Arsenal supporters are once again on the lookout for Punxsutawney Phil, because it's Groundhog Day at the Emirates. A title bid has already been hampered by gutless, insipid defeats at Stoke and Liverpool, and home wins against Leicester and Bournemouth will have done little to salve the wounds.
Only consistency will see Arsene Wenger unite a fractured fanbase, and a strong start in the Europa League would do no harm. There has been lots of talk about the French manager using the competition to blood youngsters, but such is the depth of Arsenal's squad, they should still be able to field a powerful line-up even if star players are rested.
Alexis Sanchez might get an opportunity to bank some minutes ahead of the weekend's Premier League clash with Chelsea, Jack Wilshere's latest comeback could be showcased, while Olivier Giroud is yet to make a Premier League start this term.
This is unusual territory for a team that has played Champions League football for the past couple of decades, but Arsenal's exceptional FA Cup record in recent years suggests Wenger can achieve success in competitions he doesn't necessarily deem as a top priority at the start of a campaign.
Koln looking to ignore domestic woes
Despite a poor start to the domestic season which has seen FC Koln sink to the foot of the Bundesliga, the cathedral city of Cologne is buzzing with excitement. For the first time in a quarter of a century, the Billy Goats are involved in continental competition, and their fans have been busy making travel plans since the draw was made.
This Europa League campaign is a reward for the steady progress the club has made in recent seasons under Austrian coach Peter Stoger and sporting director Jorg Schmadtke. Stoger has a relaxed coaching style which gets the best out of his players, while Schmadtke continually finds rough diamonds for the coaching staff to polish.
However, Stoger is arguably facing his biggest test since taking charge. Star striker Anthony Modeste secured a big-money move to China in the summer, and his replacement Jhon Cordoba has never shown he can score the volume of goals that his predecessor did. At the other end of the pitch, Koln's usually solid defence has sprung a few leaks in 2017. In their 21 Bundesliga games since the turn of the year, Koln have let in 34 goals. That might not seem like a disastrous record, but it's worse than usual for Stoger's men, and a lack of consistent attacking prowess means they often have to rely on keeping things tight.
Koln are a hardy bunch, but I suspect Arsenal's speed of play may prove to be their undoing. There isn't a huge amount of pace at the back for the Billy Goats, and they may be over-run a bit here. Also, Koln are struggling to make an impact at the other end, with Leonardo Bittencourt, Yuya Osako and Marcel Risse all making slow starts to the season in support of Cordoba.
Arsenal are [1.35] for the win, but I suspect they'll win by two clear goals or maybe even more, so I'll back them -1.5 on the Asian Handicap at [1.96].
A year ago I might have backed Koln to really dig in and make this difficult for Arsenal, so I may have gone for Under 2.5 Goals at [2.3]. However, their recent defensive decline suggests to me that there'll be goals at the Emirates, so backing overs at [1.7] is probably the better option.