Thursday night’s trip to the deepest, darkest, most frozen corner of Sweden does little but fill me with a sense of foreboding, particularly with an Arsenal side as fragile as this one.
Away from home this season, the Gunners have folded up at the merest hint of pressure and this Europa League tie, with a fresh coat of that David and Goliath narrative we all love, is a prime candidate for an upset.
On paper, there is little about this match that should worry Arsene Wenger’s side but, in reality, it is almost certain to be an uncomfortable night for the XI who take to the field.
They will undoubtedly face an Ostersund side fired up for what could well be the biggest game of their lives and a home crowd baying for the blood of a footballing superpower – relatively speaking.
In order to avert a fresh disaster, and the ignominy of losing to a side that nobody anywhere had ever heard of, Arsene must ensure his side blasts out of the blocks and cuts this team to ribbons before they can hit their stride.
The hosts will have been working hard since the draw was made on a game plan that will have been informed by the plentiful examples of Arsenal’s struggles away from home to date. The blueprint for the Swedes will be simple; press hard, press high, and don’t stop running until the final whistle blows.
That sort of approach must surely have been anticipated by the Frenchman and his staff and so it should hold no surprises. There should be no ‘handbrake’ for the Arsenal team, they shouldn’t be taken aback by the intensity of their opponents. This time, that excuse simply isn’t going to wash.
Sadly, injury to Alex Lacazette and the unavailability of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang means that, in all likelihood, Danny Welbeck will be leading the line for Arsenal.
For all his pace and power, Danny is far from lethal in front of goal so he must ensure that any chances he does get, he makes the absolute most of. We need goals from him.
With Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey missing, our midfield is also likely to have something of a makeshift feel to it so, again, the intensity and industry of the pair picked in the centre of the park will be all-important.
In the absence of Wilshere and Ramsey, the creative talents of Henrikh Mhkitaryan and Mesut Ozil could well be what sets us apart in this first leg so getting those two on the ball regularly will be vital, as will the movement and interchange of those playing ahead and alongside them in attack.
We can’t afford a repeat of the trip to Swansea, where the sluggish, turgid nature of our passing and movement meant anything and everything we did was smothered by two or three white shirts behind the ball. It was predictable and painfully easy to defend against for Swansea and, I’m certain, played into their hands as they launched counter-attacks with alarming regularity and success.
All said and done, Arsenal are far superior side than their plucky Scandinavian hosts, but desire can be a great leveller in matches such as these, and cup competitions are made for upsets.
In order to avoid another low in a recent history of barrel-scraping, the Gunners must be as motivated for this encounter as their hosts.
If nothing else, their entry to next season’s Champions League may well rest upon their success and that should be motivation enough.