The third instalment of my packed pre-Christmas football watching programme brought the final group game of the Europa League and the visit of serial Belarusian champions BATE Borisov on a chilly Thursday evening.
Match 3 – Arsenal vs BATE Borisov Thursday 7th December 2017. KO: 20:05
Borisov Automobile and Tractor Electronics, to give them their full official name and one that evokes memories of seemingly mysterious teams from the behind the Iron Curtain in days gone by; were actually only re-established twenty one years ago and despite hailing from a city with a population of just 150,000, have dominated Belarusian football in recent times. BATE have won the title a staggering fourteen times since their rebirth, including a run of twelve in a row with the latest having been secured with an injury time goal less than a fortnight ago; and have featured in the Champions League group stages five times with this season being their third appearance in the Europa League equivalent. Suffice it to say that this cursory research has proven sufficient to see BATE’s 13,126 capacity Borisov Arena added to the Football Nerd planned destination list for a visit at some point in the very near future.
With Arsenal’s second string having done enough in the competition so far to have already guaranteed first place in the group and progression to the knockout stages, combined with the relatively low profile of the opposition, I fully anticipated a low turnout for this one. Officially the club posted an attendance, based on tickets sold, of 54,000; in reality if the figure in terms of actual bums on seats had got past 30,000, I would have been amazed. Still, as for League Cup fixtures, this attitude of apathy means that less frequent match attenders are easily able to secure tickets and their enthusiasm actually adds something to the experience.
In the matchday programme Arsène Wenger emphasised the importance of game time for our squad players so it wasn’t unexpected to find a team containing the second choices in each position, although perhaps some more youngsters sprinkled throughout the side may have added some greater interest to the match.
As BATE needed to win and hope for a draw in Belgrade to have any chance of progressing to the knockout phase, the early Arsenal goal, albeit a rocket from the unexpected source of largely forgotten man Mathieu Debuchy, pretty much killed the tie. All those of us in attendance could do was sit back and hope to see some decent football. At times as the game progressed it felt more like an exhibition match, such was the ease at which the home team were in control of the game.
Two more goals before the break from Walcott and Wilshere, followed by a comedy own goal, a generous penalty and rare strike from midfielder Mohammed Elneny settled the proceedings and left us to contemplate the permutations of the draw for the first knockout round. Intriguingly, despite securing seeding by winning the group, Arsenal could potentially face games against Napoli, Borussia Dortmund or Marseille in the next round; while those may offer more attractive propositions to encourage season ticket holders to turn up, given Arsenal’s propensity to fall apart spectacularly once the pressure gets ramped up in European competition, I don’t think any of us should be formulating our holidays plans for Lyon in May just yet.