Politics and sport never mix, with the latest sorry incident to stuff into a packed back catalogue being Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s withdrawal from the Arsenal squad for Thursday night’s game in Baku.
It’s tempting to be derisory and refer to Qarabag as so many others have: FC Carrier Bag. That’s unduly disrespectful to the…what the hell, we’re football fans for god’s sake.
It’s unsurprising Mkhitaryan isn’t going and disappointing. Looking far into the future and probably over-optimistically, but what will UEFA’s solution be for the final in Baku next year?
Don’t get your hopes up. When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, UEFA’s solution was to keep clubs from both nations apart in the draw. No ban or forcing games to be played on neutral ground, just the prospect of “CSKA Moscow will play…Slovan Bratislava. Er, no they won’t; Werder Bremen. CSKA Moscow versus Werder Bremen.”
Nobody knew that happened, of course. No 25-minute introduction of a former player and videos of his exploits, followed by the best goals of last season in those days. No television cameras panning an audience of suited and bespectacled men whose faces are perfect for radio. Those were the days when three men with a notepad in a smoke-filled room, sat drinking coffee and made the draw.
The first you knew about it was the following day when the sports pages carried the news of the exotic lands to where your heroes would journey. You then referred to the well-thumbed Rothmans to see the history of whatever team you faced.
Opponents were tough or easy depending on their history against English clubs ten years earlier. Unless they played one of the ‘big’ teams – and there were only two or three at the time, unlike the contrived mess we have today.
Soviet Prison? I’ll Tell You What A Soviet Prison Looks Like!
And it was fluid as well. If a team was ‘big’, they had to win trophies to stay there. Fail to lift silverware for a season or two, and they were ‘fallen giants’. A club wasn’t big just because they signed the best player in the world. It was a title which had to be earned.
Fans were told to be careful; the police ‘over there’ don’t take any prisoners. The players never worried about that; their bête noire were border guards and customs officials.
But I’ve digressed enough for today. Back to Mkhitaryan. I confess I don’t recall a story back then of players not travelling for political reasons. Mainly because squads were full of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh players. The glut of overseas players began in the late ’70s with the Argentineans at Tottenham, Birmingham, and Sheffield United.
I don’t blame Mkhitaryan for not going either. It’s not a meaningless game but one we ought to win comfortably. Oooh, but they held Atletico twice last year and they beat us in the semi-final. Get back in the playground with your Rothmans.
The squad will be the usual mix of ne’er do wells, reserves, and fringe players. Key personnel will stay at home – Sokratis, for example, is unlikely to figure, surely? – while others who aren’t getting a look in for the Premier League – Elneny – get the chance to press their claims before being sold next summer. Or in January, in Aaron Ramsey’s case.
I’d expect the Welshman to play, possibly in his favoured central role with Mesut Ozil rested. Ramsey’s contract situation doesn’t warrant being dropped; that’s just cutting off your nose to spite your face.
What Difference Does It Make?
Unai Emery will play his best players for each game but we’re getting back to the time when Wenger played Ramsey on the right. It suits on occasions but never gets the best out of the player. Noticeably, when he plays on the right, the criticism of him increases. Coincidence?
Anyway, whatever the case, we’ll rotate just as we always do for the cup games. Sunday lunchtime kick-off or 4.30 that afternoon makes no difference to the team’s routine or fatigue. If we want a real impact, Monday night football is the way to go after Europa League matches.
English football arranging fixtures to help clubs succeed in Europe? Whatever next?