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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Arsene Wenger back where it all began as Arsenal prepare for return to Europa League

Cologne warn they could "surprise" the Premier League club when the two meet at the Emirates Stadium on Thursday.

Arsene Wenger talks to Sead Kolasinac with Shkodran Mustafi during training ahead of Arsenal's Europa League opener against Cologne. John Sibley / Reuters
Arsene Wenger talks to Sead Kolasinac with Shkodran Mustafi during training ahead of Arsenal's Europa League opener against Cologne. John Sibley / Reuters

It is 20 years almost to the day since Arsene Wenger gave his first team talk to an Arsenal dressing room in preparation for a European match.

By mid-September 1997, his players, most of them English in those days, had put away their scepticism about this lean, professorial Frenchman who had arrived as a relative unknown into English football.

But Wenger was not quite deemed a magician at that stage in his long Arsenal odyssey. His Arsenal lost on that occasion, 1-0 at the Greek club PAOK Saloniki, and their adventure in what was then called the Uefa Cup would be over within 180 minutes. In the home leg of that first-round tie, they could only draw 1-1.

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Doesn’t that seem a long, long time ago? The Uefa Cup no longer exists under that name and Arsenal, after capitalising on the revolutionary momentum Wenger would give them in 1997/98, his first full season in charge, soon got into the habit of assuming that European club football only meant Uefa Champions League football, and certainly not the lesser competitions, whatever they called themselves.

Not since 2000 have Arsenal played in the secondary European club tournament. Their last game in the Uefa Cup was its final in 2000, which they lost to Galatasaray on penalties, having dropped into that competition from the Champions League group phase.

In that light, it is hard to apply a rosy tint to the novel experience awaiting Wenger’s diminished Arsenal on Thursday night in North London. After 19 successive Septembers in the Champions League, it’s Thursday night football for the Emirates stadium, and a Europa League campaign which may feel a little alien, like a relegation for the team who finished fifth in last season’s Premier League.

But peer through the half-light of the Europa League, and Arsenal will glimpse others with greater pedigree than theirs in this environment, see some lustre among the runners and riders.

AC Milan will be putting on show their €150 million-plus (Dh660.4m) of new summer recruits on Thursday nights. Milan have seven European Cups to their name. Olympique Marseille, another club in reconstruction, have one, which is one more than Arsenal boast.

And besides London, represented by its most decorated club in terms of domestic trophies, the capitals of Germany – Hertha Berlin – and Italy – Lazio – will be hosting Europa League matches this autumn. Meanwhile for the representatives of the city that hosts the final in May, Olympique Lyonnais, there is a strong motive to see out the journey until the end.

Arsenal begin against Cologne, and, mindful of the city derby at Chelsea in the Premier League that awaits them three days later, Wenger will rest senior players from his line-up. “Thursday to Sunday mornings is a short time,” Wenger said.

And 25 years is a very long time. Cologne, European Cup semi-finalists in 1979 and Uefa Cup finalists in 1986, last participated in frontline European competition long before Wenger joined Arsenal. It has been a quarter-century of mixed fortunes – five relegations, five promotions – since they were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Celtic in September 1992.

No wonder, then, that this return to British soil for a marquee match is thought too big an opportunity to miss for thousands of Cologne supporters. The official allocation of 2,900 away tickets was oversubscribed by almost 10 to one, and among the many Germans who travelled to London this week – Borussia Dortmund play Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley in the Champions League on Wednesday – were Cologne fans in search of seats at the Emirates outside the designated visitors’ section.

They came in expectation that some supporters of Arsenal, spoiled by 19 consecutive seasons of Champions League football, might feel lukewarm about the Europa League. And in hope that, if Arsenal’s approach on the pitch is tepid, there’s an opportunity for the Bundesliga club to spring an ambush.

“There is no doubt that we are up against a team of very high quality,” said Peter Stoger, the Cologne manager, concerned his team are yet to gain a point so far in the league this season. “And they will punish very quickly the sorts of mistakes we have made in the Bundesliga. But we’ll take on Arsenal with the idea we can pull off a surprise.”