Arsenal may need to succeed in the Europa League to return to European football's top table, and Kevin Hatchard doesn't believe plucky Ostersunds can prevent their progress...
"Ostersunds have just returned to competitive action after a long break, and Arsenal will have to adjust to alien conditions. That could make for a cagey and disjointed start."
Ostersunds v Arsenal
Thursday February 15, 18:00
Live on BT Sport 3
Hosts' rise a Swedish fairytale with an English heart
The phrase "walking in a winter wonderland" is prevalent in football, but rarely is it so apt as it is for Ostersunds and their extraordinary manager Graham Potter. The former York City and Birmingham player was coaching at Leeds Metropolitan University and living a happy, comfortable life when the call came from Ostersunds chairman Daniel Kindberg. Potter took a huge risk in moving his young family to Sweden to take over a club in the fourth division. Even the people of what's known as the Winter City regarded him with bemusement when he arrived.
The risk paid off. Potter's intuitive and empathetic coaching style, coupled with Kindberg's vision and staunch backing, saw OFK rise up the leagues. They won last year's Swedish Cup, and have knocked out teams like PAOK, Galatasaray and Hertha Berlin in this season's Europa League. Not only have the players excelled on the pitch, but they have formed strong links with the local community off it, having put on a rock concert and a performance of Swan Lake.
Ostersunds' success in the UEL this term has been built upon excellent form at their Jamtkraft Arena. They have won five of their six European games there this season, with a 2-2 draw against Athletic Club their only failure. They'll be aided by inhospitable temperatures well below zero degrees, and a small but vociferous fanbase.
Striker Saman Ghoddos is the big threat in attack, having scored five goals in his 11 Europa League games. Skipper Brwa Nouri adds drive to the midfield, and Ken Sema is a big and strong presence out wide.
Europa League a priority as Arsenal falter
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has hitherto used the Europa League to keep players like Jack Wilshere, Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott sweet by giving them game time. Wilshere used the platform to lift himself into the Premier League starting XI, while Giroud and Walcott have now moved on to pastures new. Arsenal won their group comfortably, with a 1-0 defeat at FC Koln their only reverse across the six matches.
The Gunners' 1-0 defeat at north London rivals Spurs on Saturday further damaged their bid to reach the Champions League via a top-four finish, so winning this competition may be their only avenue. On that basis, Wenger is expected to pick his strongest available line-up, although new signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is ineligible and David Ospina will be retained as keeper.
Arsenal's away form is hardly encouraging. They have lost four of their last five road matches in all competitions, and they seem to have an extraordinary knack of throwing away points. They recently led at both Bournemouth and Swansea, but went on to lose both matches.
Aaron Ramsey is struggling with injury so may not be risked, and Alex Lacazette will be out for at least a month after a minor knee operation. New signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan is eligible to play, and is expected to start.
There are a lot of things pushing me towards opposing Arsenal. Their away form is awful, they have players that won't operate well in such freezing cold temperatures, their first and second-choice forwards are unavailable.
However, I've watched a lot of Ostersunds this season, and while there's a lot to admire, they are seriously punching above their weight. They were a bit lucky to beat Hertha Berlin in Sweden (keeper Aly Keita had a blinder), and they squeezed through the qualifiers against PAOK. They have lost players like Fouad Bachirou and Gabriel Somi, and they have only just returned to competitive action after a two-month break. Even against a weakened Arsenal, this feels like a bridge too far.
If you're keen to have a stab at predicting the winner, I'd recommend backing Arsenal, and you could boost their odds by supporting them -1.0 on the Asian Handicap at [1.92].
Ostersunds saw five of their six Europa League games feature fewer than three goals, while two of Arsenal's three away games in the competition saw an Under 2.5 Goals bet land.
With Ostersunds feeling their way back into competitive action, and Arsenal adjusting to alien conditions, it might be quite a cagey start, so I'm pleased to see Under 2.5 Goals trading at [2.18].