The players and coaches of BATE Borisov almost beat Arsenal back to London last week. The Belarus club, in a winter break in their domestic league, had always planned to spend the best part of six days preparing for the away leg in England.
They boarded a flight the morning after last Thursday's 1-0 win, crammed into their economy-class seats on a commercial airline alongside supporters of Arsenal who would have preferred to keep these unlikely conquerors at arm's length.
No first leg result from the last-32 round of the Europa League raised quite such an eyebrow as the defeat of last season’s semi-finalists by the champions of Belarus. It is quite possible that, for Unai Emery, the Arsenal manager, losing to a club ranked 75th according to Uefa’s coefficients is a new low in his history in the competition.
It's a long history, too. On Thursday evening, Emery will take charge of his 73rd match in the competition. He has lost only 10 of them, many of those within ties he finished victorious in. Three of those matches were winning finals, when he was in charge of Sevilla through the three year spell in which the tournament might have been unofficially renamed the Emery Cup.
BATE are sensible to have programmed a long acclimatisation. Conditions at the Emirates stadium will be distinct from those at the Borisov-Arena, where a bumpy pitch contributed to Arsenal’s failure to turn possession into potency.
However, Emery’s battle-cry that the home support would help to alter the complexion of the tie in its last 90 minutes may also be examined.
Arsenal’s long-term sense of drift, which predates Emery’s arrival last summer to succeed Arsene Wenger, can make the stadium an echoey place, and an early kick-off time means a stronger possibility of some empty seats, at least at the beginning of the match.
The Europa League was supposed to be Emery’s joker, his unmatched expertise in the tournament a useful trump card to be played in the spring of his first season in England in case, as seemed likely, Arsenal found themselves in a tight joust to gain a top-four place in the final Premier League table; a Europa League gold medal comes with access to the next Champions League.
Tumble out of it and the panorama of Arsenal’s prospects darkens. They are currently in fifth spot in the league, ahead of Chelsea only on goals scored, and a point behind a resurgent Manchester United.
Arsenal have taken 16 points from their last available 30, have been knocked out of the domestic Cups by rivals for top-four spots (United and Tottenham Hotspur) and, after BATE at home, face three league fixtures within six days, the last against Spurs. It is not fanciful to imagine the next nine days as the make-or-break period for the first season of the Emery era.
It’s also the sort of tight calendar that Emery would ideally have structured with rotations and rests for key players, using the cushion of a first-leg advantage in Europe.
Alex Lacazette will get his break on Thursday night, only because he is suspended from his red card in the first leg. There is a high chance Mesut Ozil, conspicuously out of favour, will begin on the substitutes’ bench, while goalkeeper Petr Cech, who has announced he will retire at the end of the season, must only hope this will not be his last senior match of a distinguished often glorious career. Cech is not first-choice in the league, but has the gloves in Europe.
Cech, 36, was busier than he might have anticipated in the first leg, a night he acknowledged had become increasingly frustrating.
“It was one of those games where if we had played for another couple of hours we wouldn’t have scored,” the 36-year-old said. “But you have to pick yourself up.”