Former Gunner Alex Hleb says Arsenal will have a big advantage over BATE Borisov this evening because the Belarussian side haven’t played a competitive game since their mid-December victory against PAOK Salonika.
BATE were crowned champions of their domestic league for the 13th successive season at the tail end of last year but have since seen seven players leave the club.
Such a high turnover, coupled with the standard pre-season fitness worries, has Hleb, now 37 and in his fifth spell at the club, making Unai Emery’s players firm favourites.
“Arsenal are at the peak of readiness – for them this is a huge plus,” Hleb told Pressball, a leading sports newspaper in Belarus.
“It will be hard for us, and very much so. But we will try to squeeze the maximum out of the physical form that we have gained.
“The usual preparation is under way. We held a training camp in Turkey and got into shape, as far as possible at the current stage.
“It is clear that we did not achieve ideal conditions in such a short time. But we will try to look decent at home.
“We are not yet ready (to play at) 100 per cent, but the coaching staff decided not to force anything – realising that the guys had to rest after a hard season. And now we are working – in general, everything is according to plan.”
While Hleb might not rate BATE’s chances, Arsenal know they have to be wary of an upset. The Gunners faced the same opponents in the group stages of the Europa League, scoring ten goals on their way to 4-2 and 6-0 wins away and home respectively, but Emery insists BATE’s close pre-Christmas game with Chelsea is probably a better representation of their quality.
“(We treat them) with respect, first,” the Spaniard told his pre-game press conference.
“We can speak about two different situations from them. One is last year they played here and Arsenal won 4-2.
“The second is thinking about this year when they played in the groups, for example against Chelsea they lost one 1-0 but they had chances to score and to draw in this match.
“They are not in competition in the league but they prepared also in pre-season. We know they are a very organised team.
“I prefer to think they can take their best performance against us tomorrow with good players and their motivation is going to be very high.
“For this competition it’s the last 32 and they want to do well like us, respecting us. For us it’s to prepare and start this last 32 with a very big motivation and ambition to do something important.”
Fun fact – A clean sheet for Arsenal this evening would take us to six in a row and see us break the all-time Europa League record. We already hold this record in the Champions League (10 in 2005/06).