Arsenal are not going to win the Premier League in 2018-19. There’s a reasonable chance they won’t even finish in the top five.
Which leaves them with the FA Cup, the Charabanc Cup and the Europa League as competitions in which they can make a genuine impact. In recent years, they’ve been-there-done-that in the FA Cup and, while a trophy is a trophy, the club’s players and supporters won’t care too much about potentially lifting the Cillitbang Challenge in February – it’s not as if they’re Tottenham, after all.
And so we come to the Europa League, the Donnie Wahlberg to the Champions League’s Marky Mark. It may well be Arsenal’s most important competition this season – which is not to say it’s the one they want to win most, or the one to which they’ll devote most resources, but rather that it’s the one that could offer the club the most bang for its buck.
There’s recent evidence to suggest Arsenal can go far in this competition – they reached the semi-finals in 2017-18 – and their manager just happens to have won da ting three times in the last five years. They know they can win it, and Unai Emery knows that so can he.
Recent quotes from the Basque manager hint that the Premier League is his main concern. But that’s hardly a surprise – it’s probably the case for every team in the division, even those capable of going all the way in the Champions League. Yet that doesn’t mean the Europa League is any less important in the grand scheme of things for Arsenal.
Winning it cuts out the middle-man of having to finish in the top four to get back into UEFA’s premier competition. Money and fan pressure dictate that the domestic league be taken as top priority, but the club’s form last season, and at the beginning of this one, suggests they may find more success in the second-tier continental tournament than in the most competitive elite league in Europe.
Besides all that, the Europa League is without doubt the most fun major competition currently in existence. This glorious, overstuffed behemoth is a wild ride through the continent’s lesser-known footballing regions – where else could you witness a team like Arsenal in action against clubs whose names appear to have been lifted out of the appendix of an obscure Tolkien text?
Pampered stars like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil are accustomed to first-class tickets and comfortable sojourns in luxurious accommodation. They won’t be used to the four-day ox-drawn cart expeditions across steppes and plains necessary to arrive at some of the locations the EL draw throws up. Or the overnight stays on rubber mats in the roofless yurts in which their host cities may accommodate them.
Really, Emery and co should think of this as a character-building exercise. What better way to toughen up for Huddersfield away than a hard-fought nil-all on the road after a slap up pre-match meal of roast vole and macerated cabbage?
The Europa League certainly makes a nice change from the dull inevitability of second-place to Braga in the Champions League group stage followed by a first knockout round exit to Bayern or Barca. But more importantly, it gives Arsenal an opportunity to win something big. They can’t afford not to jump at the chance.