Europa League may grant Emery reprieve

LONDON • Arsenal will face Belarusian outfit Bate Borisov after yesterday's Europa League round of 32 draw and Unai Emery knows the tournament may just be his side's best chance of qualifying for next season's Champions League should there be more defensive horror nights like Sunday.

The Gunners' 22-match unbeaten run in all competitions ended after a shock 3-2 Premier League loss against struggling Southampton, falling three points behind fourth-placed Chelsea.

Right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner, midfielder Granit Xhaka and a half-fit Laurent Koscielny, playing only his second game after seven months out following Achilles surgery, formed a makeshift backline that struggled to cope with the Saints' aerial bombardment.

They conceded three headed goals at St Mary's and the Spaniard conceded afterwards his side had to defend with more composure if they were to clinch a place in the top four to end their two-season Champions League absence.

"If we won't win like today, we cannot be in the top four. Other teams, usually they are winning," he said after a sloppy display capped by an error by goalkeeper Bernd Leno for striker Charlie Austin's 85th-minute winner.

The Arsenal manager, however, refused to blame the one-game suspensions of regular centre-backs Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, as well as the injury to right-back Hector Bellerin, who went off at half-time, for the error-strewn performance.

He said: "We haven't conceded a lot of chances but today, they (Southampton) scored three goals. We need to do some analysis on how we can improve and do better. We need to continue taking responsibility for the 90 minutes."

 
 
 

Bellerin would likely be out for "some weeks" after suffering a calf strain and Emery admitted he might move for players in the January transfer window if Arsenal fall further behind in the top-four race.

He added: "Only if we think the players can't help us with a good performance. January is not a good transfer window for this reason, but we are going to look and the club is working on transfers in January."

However, the club also have a Plan B as winning the Europa League represents a direct route into European football's premier competition and they were given a boost after a comparatively easier draw which also saw the Blues paired with Sweden's Malmo.

The pick of the round was the tie between five-time champions Sevilla and Italian side Lazio. The first legs will be played on Feb 14, with return legs a week later.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2018, with the headline 'Europa League may grant Emery reprieve'. Print Edition | Subscribe