By Peter Auf der Heyde
While both Arsenal and Manchester United are punching below their weight in their domestic league, they are leading the way when it comes to the Europa League.
The Reds, who slumped to their fourth league defeat of the season with a 1-0 loss at Bournemouth on the weekend, are currently only 10th in the Premier League with 13 points from 11 matches – 18 points behind run-away leaders Liverpool.
Although slightly better, the Gunners are also not having the domestic season their fans are hoping for. They have four points more than United and are fifth, but six points adrift of the fourth-placed Chelsea.
In the Europa League, both clubs are looking strong and seem well en route to the knock-out stage.
Arsenal have an unblemished record in Group F, ahead of their away trip to Vitória de Guimarães. After three victories on the trot they have a three point advantage over Eintracht Frankfurt, who are away to Standard Liège in the other group game on Thursday.
Unai Emery has been giving a lot of non-regular players a chance to grab some match-time in the Europa League and some, like young Brazilian striker Gabriel Martinelli, have grabbed the chance they were given.
The 18-year-old, who has played little more than a bit-part in the league, was twice given a starting place in the Europa League and repaid Emery’s faith by scoring three goals in the two matches, including one in the 3-2 home victory against the Portuguese opponent.
United, meanwhile, top group L with seven points from Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, who are on five. Partizan Belgrade who visit Old Trafford on Thursday, have four points.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team have yet to concede in the Europa League, but have also only managed two goals – one by Mason Greenwood in a 1-0 win in their opening game against Astana and the other by Anthony Martial in the 1-0 victory in Belgrade on the last match-day.
Pressure on Solskjær will only have been increased by the defeat against Bournemouth and the Norwegian will be keen to ensure that United qualify for the next round as early as possible.
Solskjær has been criticised for letting Lukaku leave during the break and with French international Paul Pogba out injured, the coach is running out of options to play upfront.
Marcus Rashford has scored more than half of United’s goals this season and if the England international is off-form, United struggle to win.
Pogba, who is expected to be out until the end of the year, at least, said that it was tough watching the team but not being able to make a contribution.
“I’m gutted. To see the team lose without being able to play is the worst. I would like to be back to help them but the most important thing is to heal.”
United and Arsenal are just two of the fantastic clubs that will be involved in Europa League action on Thursday and fans throughout Africa have an opportunity to watch all the action – live and exclusively – on StarTimes’ football channels.
Peter Auf der Heyde
Peter Auf der Heyde is an award-winning football journalist and author, who covers the big European leagues. As a South African by birth, he is particularly interested in the African connection within European football and has covered 12 consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments live. Formerly head of sport at the English service of the German Press Association, he is one of the leading Bundesliga experts.
Auf der Heyde played professionally for Bosmont Chelsea in the South African top flight and now spends his time migrating between South Africa, Germany and the UK.