Will Arsene Wenger take the Europa League seriously and other Arsenal key questions

David Cooper 13/09/2017
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Arsenal embark on a Europa League campaign when Cologne visit the Emirates on Thursday night.

Here, we look at some key talking points ahead of the clash.

WILL ARSENE WENGER TAKE IT SERIOUSLY?

Arsenal boss Wenger has already said the Premier League is the priority for the Gunners this season.

The Frenchman is also not a fan of the Europa League winners earning a slot in the following year’s Champions League – as Manchester United did last season – and would rather get there by breaking back into the top four.

Wenger has always played a changed team during Arsenal’s League Cup ties and it is likely to be a similar story when Bundesliga side Cologne visit London.

Wenger is not a fan of Europa League winner's passage into the Champions League

Wenger is not a fan of Europa League winner’s passage into the Champions League

SO, WHO WILL BE IN THE TEAM?

Seven of Arsenal’s first-choice players will be rested completely from the game with Petr Cech, Laurent Koscielny, Alexandre Lacazette, Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck and Mesut Ozil all sitting this one out.

That does not necessarily mean it will be a team of inexperienced youngsters as Jack Wilshere could make a long-awaited comeback while Alexis Sanchez may feature as he strives for match sharpness.

Back-up David Ospina is likely to come in, while the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Per Mertesacker, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud are also in contention.

Jack Wilshere was sent off in a Premier League 2 fixture earlier this season

Jack Wilshere was sent off in a Premier League 2 fixture earlier this season

SHOULD THEY BEAT COLOGNE NO MATTER WHO PLAYS?

Peter Stoger’s side finished a strong fifth in the Bundesliga last season, albeit 13 points behind fourth-placed Hoffenheim.

This campaign has started badly for the Billy Goats, who have lost their opening three league games to sit bottom of the table – they are the only top-flight German side without a point so far.

Like Arsenal, who lost the 2000 UEFA Cup final to Galatasaray, they have history in this competition and finished as runners-up in 1986, losing the final 5-3 to Real Madrid over two legs.

Peter Stoeger

Peter Stoeger

DO COLOGNE HAVE ANY RECOGNISABLE TALENT?

No star names jump out of the Cologne squad, but they have some good players nonetheless.

Their talisman from last season, Anthony Modeste, is currently out on loan in the Chinese Super League having hit 25 goals for Stoger’s men last season.

Forward Yuya Osako is a Japan international, while experienced skipper Matthias Lehmann has been around the block.

New signing Jhon Cordoba has been likened to Didier Drogba in the past while a host of former Germany international youth talents make up much of the squad.

New signing Jhon Cordoba in action this season

New signing Jhon Cordoba in action this season

WILL IT BE A SELL-OUT?

Arsenal have slashed ticket prices for their Europa League group games, with the most expensive ticket for Thursday’s match a modest £23.50, but the game is not sold out.

The club never announce their attendances but instead work on a ‘tickets sold’ basis – although Thursday is likely to be well down on the 59,000+ that pack into the Emirates Stadium for Premier League matches and Champions League evenings.

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Ernesto Valverde has been bold with Lionel Messi but also quiet and rational to bring Barcelona stability

Andy West 13/09/2017
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The season is still young and there’s an awfully long way to go before any celebration, but it already appears that Ernesto Valverde is exactly the manager Barcelona needed.

It was clear they needed something. The team was on the verge of falling apart under previous boss Luis Enrique, whose combative personal manner and inability to instil a clear tactical vision left the team a long way from reaching their potential in the last 18 months of his reign.

All sorts of names were touted as potential replacements for Enrique, and former Athletic Bilbao coach Valverde, who enjoyed his greatest successes with Olympiakos in Greece, appeared to be a rather conservative choice.

He’s certainly a serene personality. Unlike the abrasive Enrique, you won’t find Barcelona’s new manager making enemies within the media by rolling his eyes at unwelcome questions and snapping back terse one-liners.

Neither will you see him, unlike Pep Guardiola or Jorge Sampaoli, attempting to unleash some kind of tactical masterclass upon his players and dazzle the watching world with a wild new playing formation.

Rather than grabbing headlines with ostentatious public displays, Valverde just gets on with his job, quietly and calmly, making rationally thought-out decisions and communicating clearly with his players to keep them on the same page.

That’s not to say he doesn’t make bold decisions, and Valverde has already come up with a significant solution after wrestling with his single biggest dilemma: where to play Lionel Messi.

After being positioned on the right wing for much of the last three years, Messi has been returned to his old ‘false nine’ deep-lying centre forward role, allowing him to perform as a playmaker and a striker at the same time, and the results have been hugely positive with Messi rattling home seven goals in his last three games.

Messi celebrates the first of two goals against Juventus

Messi celebrates the first of two goals against Juventus

Messi’s repositioning, naturally, has had a knock-on effect within the rest of the team, and the midfield in particular has benefitted from the Argentine being placed as the free-roaming tip of a diamond ahead of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta.

Although Messi has obviously grabbed the headlines, his midfield teammates also caught the eye in this week’s victories over Espanyol and Juventus, with Rakitic’s return to top form an especially welcome sight after a tough final year under Enrique for the Croatian.

The team’s defensive efforts have also been excellent, as Barca have not conceded a single goal in their last four games and shown few of the frailties that were almost always apparent last season, with summer signing Nelson Semedo settling quickly and Jordi Alba back to his best.

Not everything is perfect. In particular, the shape of the attack in front of Messi looks lopsided, with Ousmane Dembele or Gerard Deulofeu pinned to the right touchline while Luis Suarez meanders around an inside left position which neither allows him to play as a centre forward nor a winger.

Both Dembele and Suarez were poor against Juventus, with the record signing Frenchman at times looking completely out of place in a team which doesn’t yet know how to play to his strengths.

These are issues for Valverde to address, along with the question of squad depth when his big hitters are missing. But so far, the new boss couldn’t have done much better.

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Andres Iniesta discusses his ongoing contract situation but says he's pleased with Barcelona's progress

Andy West 13/09/2017
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Andres Iniesta has confirmed there’s been no progress in his contract talks with Barcelona, but admits he has been heartened by the team’s promising start to the season.

The veteran midfielder, whose current deal expires at the end of this season, hit the headlines last week when club president Josep Maria Bartomeu claimed a new contract has been agreed in principle, only for Iniesta to immediately state that was not true.

And after delivering an eye-catching personal performance in Tuesday’s 3-0 Champions League victory over Juventus, including an inch-perfect pass to tee up Lionel Messi’s second goal, Iniesta revealed there has been no progress in his talks with the club.

“There’s no news, and if there was you would know about it,” sniffed the club captain, who appears to be less than happy that his contract talks have been given such prominence.

“But what bothers me is what happens on the pitch. I want to be happy and for things to go well. I put collective the above the personal, and I’m happy with how everything is going.”

Iniesta can certainly have no complaints about his team’s current form, with the 3-0 win against Juventus extending Barca’s winning streak to four games, during which time they have scored 12 goals without conceding any.

After an inconsistent season under former boss Luis Enrique and a frustrating summer in the transfer market, there’s a growing sense that new manager Ernesto Valverde is starting to take his team in the right direction.

And Iniesta agreed with the sentiment that Barca are gradually re-establishing themselves as a major force to be reckoned with, suggesting that Valverde is succeeding in implementing an effective team structure as he said: “If the team is functioning well, we all look better.

“Starting to win against opponents like Juventus is not easy. We controlled the game well – they had few chances and we completed a very good game.”

The skipper’s words were echoed by Jordi Alba, whose rampaging running down the left wing has been a feature of Barca’s performances in the opening weeks of the campaign.

Alba fell out of favour for stretches of last season under former boss Luis Enrique, but his newly restated importance to the team is shown by the fact that he had more touches of the ball than any other player in the victory over Juventus.

And the Spain international, who has clearly held off Lucas Digne for the role of Valverde’s preferred left-back, expressed the sense that his teammates are once again enjoying themselves on the field of play, noting: “You have to suffer to win games like that, but we are having fun.

Alba also believes new signings Nelson Semedo and Ousmane Dembele have given the team a timely boost, saying: “The majority of us are the same players as last season, but the new arrivals have been a plus.”

And he praised the whole team for their excellent defensive record, saying: “It’s not just the defenders, everyone is working hard.”

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