18:00 KO (BST); Thursday 19th October; Rajko Mitić Stadium (Belgrade, Serbia); BT Sport 2
Despite winning consecutive Europa League games against Cologne and BATE Borisov, Arsenal face a tough away-trip test against Red Star, who are yet to lose in Europe this season, sitting a mere two points behind Arsenal, in second place. Having succumbed to a disappointing 2-1 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road on Saturday evening, Arsenal will look to prevent an in-form Red Star Belgrade side from taking three points and going on top of Group H after the third match-day.
It has been a difficult week for Arsenal on the pitch, with manager Arsene Wenger announcing that both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil could exit the club in the January transfer window. While Ozil was underwhelming in the Watford defeat, Alexis was missing following the international break. He should be available to play against Red Star on Thursday.
Last Time Out
Red Star Belgrade 4-0 FK Mačva Šabac
Red Star Belgrade have now won 10 of their opening 12 matches in the Serbian SuperLiga and made easy work of dispatching Mačva last Saturday to continue their remarkable form. Manager Vladan Milojević hailed what he described as his team’s ‘professionalism’ as Red Star dispatched their opponents clinically. He will be hoping that his team can carry this momentum into their European fixture this Thursday.
Despite missing an early penalty, Ghanaian forward Richmond Boakye was the first to put his name on the scoresheet, quickly followed by winger Nemanja Radonjic. A plethora of chances followed in the first half for Red Star. However, they didn’t extend their lead until the second half, with goals coming from Aleksandar Pešić and Luka Ilic, respectively.
Watford 2-1 Arsenal
Arsenal will feel somewhat demoralised following last Saturday’s defeat to Watford, slipping to sixth in the Premier League in the process. Per Mertesacker opened the scoring for Arsenal in the first half, heading home his first Premier League goal since December 2013.
In the second half, Mesut Ozil replaced the injured Danny Welbeck and immediately missed a glaring opportunity to double the Gunners’ lead. Arsenal were unlucky to see Watford equalise through a controversial penalty, with Richarlison going down under a minimal contact from Hector Bellerin. Troy Deeney converted the resulting spot kick. In stoppage time, the home team went on to take all three points with Tom Cleverley bagging the late, late winner.
Red Star Belgrade
Red Star Belgrade are likely to field an attack-minded team in a 4-2-4 formation, allowing them to capitalise on the excellent form of both Aleksandar Pešić and Richmond Boakye. The pair have already scored a combined 20 goals for the Serbian outfit this season.
Nemanja Radonjic and Slavoljub Srnic will provide a significant threat with their pace down either wing, while 18-year-old Manchester City loanee Luka Ilic may be forced to make way in the starting lineup in spite of his goal at the weekend: his first for Red Star.
While David Ospina has started the previous two Europa League games for Arsenal, Petr Cech looks set to be given the responsibility against Red Star. Arsene Wenger has suggested that there is a ‘possibility’ of Mathieu Debuchy making a long-awaited return to the starting lineup, playing alongside Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding in a back three.
Jack Wilshere should finally return to the pitch, following his awkward exclusion from the starting XI against Watford last weekend, while Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott seem the most likely of Arsenal’s vast attacking options to claim a spot.
Youngsters Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles are all expected to play, as Wenger continues to use the Europa League as an outlet to experiment with his less-experienced players.
Richmond Boakye vs Theo Walcott
Ghanaian forward Richmond Boakye has been in impressive form recently, scoring 12 goals in 18 matches for Red Star so far this season. His pace, composure and clinical finishing have managed to attract significant international attention, an admirable feat considering the relatively low profile of the Superliga outside of Serbian borders. Rumour has it that Chelsea are sending scouts to Red Star’s encounter with Arsenal as they look to bolster their attacking options.
If Arsenal start with Per Mertesacker at the back, they should be particularly wary of Boakye, who is not only powerful but quick and always looking to play off the last man. Mertesacker’s aerial prowess may not be enough to make up for his lack of pace in the face of such an opponent.
Theo Walcott has undergone a difficult few years at Arsenal, never really cementing a position in the regular starting lineup. While he has always expressed his desire to play as a striker, this dream has long since ended and he is now played sparingly as an attacking midfield or winger.
Having not featured in the defeat to Watford, Walcott looks set to start against Red Star, and he will certainly be looking to emulate his performance from Arsenal’s last Europa League tie, when he scored a brace against BATE Borisov, helping Arsenal to a 4-2 victory. The Europa League provides Walcott with the perfect opportunity to remind Arsene Wenger, alongside the Arsenal fans, that he is an indispensable asset on his day.
Red Star’s European Pedigree
Serbian football may not be the epitome of the beautiful game but in the past Red Star Belgrade were a force to be reckoned with on a European level. Red Star won the European Cup back in 1991, a feat yet to be matched by Arsenal.
The only past encounter between both clubs came in the third round of the UEFA Cup in 1978 which Arsenal went on to lose 2-1 on aggregate. Red Star’s fans will be expecting nothing less this time around even though the prospect seems less likely. That said, the Rajko Mitić Stadium is famed for its intimidating atmosphere and may present a psychological hurdle for the visiting team to overcome.
The curious case of Alexandre Lacazette
Many are tipping Alexandre Lacazette to start on the bench for Arsenal as Wenger gives his other attackers a run-out for a change. That being said, the Frenchman may be well served with another appearance as an antidote to his league form which has been somewhat questionable so far this season. Scoring 37 goals in 45 appearances for Lyon last season, he is yet to hit those dizzying heights for Arsenal only managing 4 goals in 8 Premier League Games so far.
More to the point, Lacazette’s game time has been very limited with Wenger seemingly reluctant to give the striker an opportunity to play a full 90 minutes. Former Chelsea star Tony Cascarino has gone as far as suggesting that Wenger doesn’t rate his record signing. If Lacazette is given the chance to feature at all during the match, he should seize the chance to prove his worth to Wenger.
The Sanchez/Ozil Saga may affect proceedings on the pitch
The never-ending saga surrounding the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil seems to have taken a turn for the worse earlier this week, with Arsene Wenger suggesting that their sales in the January transfer window are ‘possible’.
While the affairs of the two individuals should not be holding Arsenal back, there is little doubt that there is an uncertainty around the club which must play on the minds of the Arsenal players. The potential loss of the two extraordinary talents must be a worrying prospect for their teammates and the rumours circulating do no favours for Arsenal’s team morale.
Red Star Belgrade 1-3 Arsenal
While the Serbians may be dominating their own domestic scene, Arsenal are on a different class to the average opposition in the SuperLiga. It will be no walk in the park for the Gunners who are enduring a difficult spell at the moment. Nevertheless, they should be expecting to come away with nothing less than three points here.
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