Arsenal 4 FC Vorskla Poltava 2
Two goals from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a show-stealing performance from Henrikh Mkhitaryan ensured Arsenal had the gentlest of openings to this year’s European campaign.
Boss Unai Emery loves the Europa League. He made the competition his own when in charge of perennial winners Seville. It looks as if he might inspire his new team to share that obsession.
The fairly subdued atmosphere and plethora of empty seats suggested an unconditional love for Uefa’s second-string competition is not exactly in the offing, as far as Arsenal fans are concerned, but their team had fun at the expense of limited opponents.
It feels like slumming it after so many years of Champions League football at Emirates Stadium, but the run to last season’s semi-final showed that if this to be the new reality for now, they might as well make the most of it.
Emery fielded a strong starting XI – one that is almost certainly stronger than the one he is likely to field in next week’s Carabao Cup clash with Brentford – as if to emphasise the point.
The £19m German keeper Bernd Leno made his long-awaited debut, while Aubameyang spearheaded an attack also featuring Danny Welbeck on the right and Alex Iwobi on the left.
FC Vorskla Poltava, currently fifth in the Ukranian League, offered modest problems for Emery’s men. They managed to keep things on an even keel for half an hour, but then got caught out by their growing ambition to push forward – suckered on the counter-attack.
Aubameyang it was who tucked home the opener after Mkhitaryan had broken up an attack with an interception and set Iwobi free down the left. A few rapid steps and a low cross later and it was 1-0 to the Arsenal.
Comfortable rather than overwhelming, the Gunners cranked it up as the first half ended. Aubameyang clipped the outside of a post after cutting into shooting range and then Bohdan Shust did well to keep out a curler from distance by the marauding Mkhitaryan.
Mkhitaryan was again involved in the next goal at the start of the second half – sending in an inswinging cross which was glanced home by Welbeck.
And barely 10 minutes later, Aubameyang was given room to rifle in a third. That was the cue for the striker to be withdraw from the action, with the weekend clash against Everton in mind.
Sub Mesut Ozil got in on the act, stabbing in from close range, but the plucky Ukranians were handed two consolation goals.
First, Stephan Lichtsteiner dithered on the edge of the box following a free-kick, allowing Volodymyr Chesnakov to hammer home past Leno. Then, at the death, Vyacheslav Sharpar cracked in after the Gunners failed to deal with a cross from the left.
Sporting Lisbon and FC Qarabag may well offer sterner tests in the other group games to come, but everyone expects the real business to begin for Arsenal when the knockout stages get under way. The road to the final in Baku is very long and winding, but Emery, for one, will be up for the challenge.