LONDON: Premier League giants Arsenal make their Europa League bow this week, slipping into the continent’s second-string competition after nearly two decades in the Champions League, with AC Milan also injecting star quality.
Arsene Wenger’s men, fifth in the Premier League last season — their first finish outside the top four since 1995-96 — take on German side Cologne on Thursday at the Emirates Stadium in London.
The Arsenal boss said his team can sustain a Europa League challenge but a top-four finish in the Premier League would be the best way to reach next season’s Champions League.
Manchester United won the Europa League title last season to secure direct entry to the Champions League. Manager Jose Mourinho made winning the competition a priority as United slipped to a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League.
Wenger, however, believes domestic success is key to Arsenal’s ambitions despite the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League after 19 consecutive seasons in Europe’s premier competition.
“I think the best way to do it is through the Premier League,” Wenger told a news conference on Wednesday. “We did that for 20 years. We got 75 points last year and overall, I am humble enough to be happy to win every competition.”
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech, who won the 2012/13 Europa League with Chelsea, said the competition was a worthwhile target.
“We decided that it was the first time and hopefully the last time we played the Europa League and we wanted to win it,” he said.
Wenger, whose Arsenal side lost the club’s previous match in the competition to Galatasary in the 2000 final, when it was branded the UEFA Cup, is likely to rotate his squad, giving some of his fringe players game time as he negotiates a tricky Group ‘H’ that also includes Red Star Belgrade and Belarusian outfit BATE Borisov.
Seven-time European champions AC Milan have an easier task, with ties against Austria Vienna, AEK Athens and Rijeka of Croatia in Group ‘D’ as they continue their return to European competition for the first time since 2013-14.
The Italians, looking to win the only major European trophy that has so far eluded them, appear to be on the road to recovery under Chinese ownership after a number of lean years.
Smarting after a 4-1 Serie A defeat at Lazio at the weekend, they open their group-stage campaign at Austria Vienna after coming through two qualifying rounds.
“We are a new squad. It’s my responsibility and the one of the boss and the management to lead this group to success,” said captain Leonardo Bonucci, who joined the club from Juventus in the close season.
“We must stick together also when playing in Europa League,” he told Milan TV. “It’s a competition that many in the team have never played in before.”
Wayne Rooney’s Everton will have a stern test in Group ‘E’, which also includes French club Olympique Lyonnais, whose Groupama Stadium will host the final on May 16.
They travel to Atalanta eager to forget a weekend 3-0 Premier League home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.
“It is a chance to lay down a marker in the group stage, and that is obviously something we would like to do,” defender Leighton Baines said.
Lyon, meanwhile, will be looking for a good start in Cyprus against Apollon Limassol.
Italy’s Lazio will visit Dutch newcomers Vitesse, Spain’s Villarreal, aiming to go further than last season’s disappointing exit to AS Roma in the last 32 of the tournament, prepare for the visit of Kazakhstan’s Astana while their La Liga rivals Real Sociedad are ready to give Adnan Januzaj his European debut when they face Rosenborg.
The third Spanish side, Athletic Bilbao travel to Germany to face Hertha Berlin who will play their first Europa League group stage game in eight years.
Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2017