Arsenal on brink of Europa League knockout rounds
Having made a perfect start to their Europa League campaign, Arsenal can secure a place in the knockout phase with two group games to spare by beating Red Star Belgrade on Thursday.
The Gunners play host to the 1991 European Cup winners in north London a fortnight after Olivier Giroud’s remarkable late goal secured a 1-0 win in Belgrade.
Having also got the better of Cologne and BATE Borisov, Arsene Wenger’s side are top of Group H with maximum points and simply avoiding defeat against the Serbian league leaders could be enough for them to progress to the last 32.
For a side growing in confidence after four straight wins in all competitions, another victory should not be too much to ask, even if Wenger will again rotate his squad with one eye on Sunday’s Premier League clash with Manchester City.
Everton, the other English side in the competition, are in a rather less favourable position as they head to France to take on Lyon.
Languishing in the relegation zone in the Premier League and without a permanent manager since the sacking of Ronald Koeman last week, the Toffees could be eliminated from Europe on Thursday.
Such a scenario will arise if they lose and Group E leaders Atalanta avoid defeat in their game against Apollon Limassol in Cyprus.
It has been a miserable continental campaign so far for Everton, who were held at home by Apollon either side of a defeat to Atalanta and a 2-1 home loss to Lyon last month.
They have lost both games so far under caretaker manager David Unsworth, following a 2-1 reverse at Chelsea in the League Cup with a 2-0 Premier League defeat at Leicester City, but youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin put a positive spin on things ahead of the trip to France.
“The match at Chelsea showed we have those good performances in us, then in the second half against Leicester they had a two-goal cushion but we were trying to break them down for the full 45 minutes and were the better side,” he told the club’s website.
“If we can keep bringing that intensity and standard of play to our performances, then we will win games.”
However, unbeaten in seven and fresh from four straight wins, Lyon are in formidable form and are determined to go all the way to the final which will be held at their own Groupama Stadium.
Among the other clubs who could secure qualification for the last 32 with two games to spare on Thursday are Dynamo Kiev, Lazio and Zenit St Petersburg.
Surprise Swedish side Ostersund – coached by Englishman Graham Potter – will extend their run in Europe into the New Year with the right combination of results as they visit Athletic Bilbao.
Meanwhile, in the midst of a poor run of form in Serie A, AC Milan are also in a position to progress to the last 32 with a win against AEK Athens in Greece in Group D.
But they must do so without Argentina midfielder Lucas Biglia, who has been ruled out with a knee problem.