Europa League previews: Arsenal, Chelsea, Celtic and Rangers

Arsenal and Chelsea are through but Celtic and Rangers need results to reach the last 32 of the competition

James Piercy

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While the majority of the Champions League knockout places were decided in matchday five, there are still 19 of 32 Europa League spots up for grabs in the final round of fixtures this week.

Premier League Arsenal and Chelsea are two of the 13 teams safely through but Glasgow giants Celtic and Rangers have tricky match-ups against Austrian opposition to determine their fate.

Here, we cast an eye over the four ties on Thursday involving British teams.

Arsenal v Qarabag

With the Gunners safely qualified as Group E winners and Azerbaijani champions Qarabag without a chance of progression, Thursday night’s game at the Emirates may be lacking a little in competitive edge.

Arsenal to score over 3.5 goals, 3.40*

There is the subject of Arsenal’s unbeaten run and the chance for Unai Emery’s side to extend it to 22 games which, in terms of momentum and confidence around the club would obviously be important but, in many ways, there are two more pressing tasks.

Firstly, with six league fixtures inside 16 days, certain first-team players are in need a breather: Hector Belleren, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Lucas Torreira – who’ve made minimal appearances in the competition anyway – could be left out of the squad altogether.

That, in turn, presents opportunities for a number of the emerging players at Emery’s disposal with Emile Smith-Rowe, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock all likely to start again having impressed in the 3-0 win at Vorskla a fortnight ago.

Zech Medley, Bukayo Saka and Charlie Gilmour all came off the bench in Ukraine and are also pushing to be included in the first XI for what is a vital exercise in experience, squad building and for growing Emery’s knowledge and understanding of his squad.

Emery must also decide whether to start or feature Laurent Koscielny. The French centre-back is fit again and will be needed for Sunday’s Premier League game against Southampton as Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi are suspended, while Rob Holding is injured.

However, he only has 85 minutes under his belt this season after playing for Arsenal’s academy in the EFL Trophy and Qarabag could be a chance to work on his match fitness and sharpness, or could it be perceived as an unnecessary risk?

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Vidi v Chelsea

With five wins from five and just one goal conceded, the Blues have soared into the next and, without knowing the identity of the eight Champions League teams to join the competition, so far look the team to beat.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek to be first goalscorer, 10.0*

A significant part of Maurizio Sarri will want to wrap up a perfect group stage with victory in Hungary, and not just for matters of pride.

After beating Manchester City 2-0 on Saturday, the overwhelming message from the Italian coach, and backed up by David Luiz, was one of concentration and maintaining standards. The Blues ended the Premier League champions’ unbeaten run against the backdrop of defeats to Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers.

By no means a disaster but it prompted some fierce and thorough analysis by Sarri, questioning why his team lacked consistency in performance.

Given this tie against Vidi is of no consequence to the club, it is precisely the sort of game he will be watching closely as to which players are focused and which have switched off. They can also expect a game as the hosts need a result to qualify.

There will be changes, of course there will – the festive period in the Premier League will see to that, with further chances for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Emerson, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Olivier Giroud, Andreas Christensen and Cesc Fabregas to show the role they can play over the next three weeks.

Rapid Wien v Rangers

Steven Gerrard has only been in management for five months but inadvertently the Gers boss has a reputation for being a bad omen to opposition managers. In a strange quirk of the season, each of the three teams in Rangers’ group have sacked their manager this season.

Rangers to win and both teams to score, 4.20*

Javier Calleja of Villarreal completed the odd hat-trick this week with his dismissal, following former Spartak Moscow boss Massimo Carrera in October and Goran Djuricin of Rapid Wien a month earlier.

Despite the upheaval, all four teams remain in contention to qualify from Group G and Rangers task is pretty straightforward: they need a win in Austria to guarantee their spot. A draw means they’re relying on Spartak to beat Villarreal. Defeat is not enough.

Sunday’s surprise 1-1 draw against a Dundee side who played 71 minutes with 10 men wasn’t exactly the best preparation but, on the other hand, Gerrard will hope it was an indifferent performance to get out of the way.

Gerrard knows he will be without Jamie Murphy and Graeme Dorrans while Ryan Kent may also be sidelined.

From the hosts’ perspective, their league form in the Austrian Bundesliga doesn’t imply they are a team at the top of their powers, either. Since replacing Djuricin, Dietmar Kuhbauer has presided over only two wins in ten games. That said, Rapid Wien need only to avoid defeat on Thursday.

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Celtic v Red Bull Salzburg

Having negotiated their testing start to the season, both on the field and in the transfer market, Brendan Rodgers’ side appeared to have rediscovered their mojo at precisely the right time as they welcome Red Bull Salzburg to Glasgow for a European tie they must not lose.

Odsonne Edouard to be first goalscorer, 5.00*

With the Austrians through as group winners, Celtic need to keep RB Leipzig at arm’s length by winning or drawing on Thursday. Defeat may be enough, but only if the Bundesliga side fail to beat already-eliminated Rosenborg.

Given Celtic’s prowess at home, further evidence by their 5-1 thrashing of Kilmarnock on the weekend, they can feel confident of getting the job done but Salzburg are top of Group B for a reason: the Austrian side are yet to lose in 2018/19 and have been playing some outstanding football.

Securing the point required to progress is by no means a given; Munas Dabbur is the joint-leading scorer in the Europa League with five while teammate Takumi Minamino is not far behind with four goals and Salzburg average 3.0 goals per game in the competition.

The major decision Rodgers faces is not one that would have seen a conundrum two months ago. Since Scott Brown injured his hamstring against Hibernian on October 20, Celtic have lost just once in 11 matches (at RB Leipzig), winning eight games.

This is a European match, under floodlights, in front of home support which is tailor-made for Brown’s competitiveness and character. But does Rodgers risk conceding an element of their winning chemistry for the sake of his captain, who may not even be match fit yet?

*all odds are subject to change


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