Arsenal vs BATE Borisov: Why was Europa League last 32 second leg moved to a Wednesday – and back again?
Thursday nights are synonymous with Europa League football. So much so, in fact, that various derogatory chants to that effect have been popularised at Premier League grounds in recent years.
It appeared that thanks to Uefa rules, however, Arsenal would buck the trend when they were matched with BATE Borisov in the last 32 of the Europa League. In the aftermath of the Europa League draw on Monday afternoon, much to Arsenal fans’ annoyance, it was widely reported that the game had been scheduled for 5pm on Wednesday 20 February.
It goes without saying that 5pm would have been an incredibly inconvenient kick-off time for matchgoing fans, clashing with the regular working day and rush hour while leaving very little travel time. Many supporters were left fearing that they would miss kick off, or questioning whether they would attend the match at all.
Why was the game mooted for Wednesday?
In short, because Chelsea were also at home on the Thursday evening and Uefa rules usually prohibit two teams from contesting matches in the same city on the same night. Despite being eight places below Arsenal in the Uefa club coefficient, Chelsea were to take priority because they won a domestic cup last season. Or so the logic went, at least.
The Press Association quoted a Uefa statement which read: “Due to the city clash between Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC, and in order to respect the sporting criteria of the competition (both teams are seeded and have to play the return leg of their respective round of 32 ties at home), one of the two return-leg matches will be played on a Wednesday.
“In accordance with the principles set by the Club Competitions Committee, Chelsea FC have priority, having won the national domestic cup. Arsenal FC will therefore play their return leg in the round of 32 at home on Wednesday 20 February 2019, at 18.00 CET (17.00 GMT), irrespective of their opponents.”
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Why the 5pm kick off?
While it made a certain sense for Arsenal and Chelsea to play on different evenings given the logistics involved, the suggestion of a 5pm kick off was the most controversial element of the schedule change. Before Uefa clarified the situation, it had been reported that they did not want the match to clash with the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid are set to face Juventus on Wednesday 20 February, while Manchester City will play Schalke.
How did Arsenal fans react?
Unsurprisingly, many Arsenal supporters were livid and accused Uefa of prioritising broadcasters’ convenience over that of matchgoing fans.
After the news first broke, the Arsenal Supporters’ Trust tweeted: “The proposed kick off time of 5pm for the Europa League game at the Emirates v Bate… is ridiculous. The AST is calling on Arsenal to make the strongest representations to Uefa to have this changed. Don’t they understand football without fans is nothing?
“If the game does go ahead at this time then Arsenal should offer every fan a full refund for a game that is included on the season ticket. It is not fair to force fans to pay for a game that is scheduled at a time that it is impossible for so many to make.”
Other supporters’ groups were in agreement, with the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association issuing a statement of their own.
Below is AISAs statement regarding the 5pm kickoff time for our home EL match against BATE Borisov. pic.twitter.com/QzYUm666J6
— AISA (@AISA_Arsenal) December 17, 2018
On top of that, it would be fair to say that Arsenal Twitter went into full rage mode.
So what’s happened now?
Whether owing to the fan backlash or Uefa rushing out the initial statement, the game has now been rescheduled for Thursday 21 February at 5.55pm. While that timing isn’t much better for fans, it will at least give them a little extra breathing room.
In response, Arsenal have released a statement on their official website which reads: “We appreciate this kick-off time may present difficulties for supporters and matchday staff and we would have preferred for the match to kick off at 8pm, as has been the case for all our home matches in this season’s group stage.
“We thank everyone in advance for their support in relation to this kick-off time which is not in our control.”
Contacted for comment, Uefa told i: “Following today’s draw and discussions with all parties involved, it was possible to resolve the city clash involving Chelsea FC and Arsenal FC. Consequently, both matches can take place in London on the same evening.”
Not a great day for Uefa’s schedulers, still. Arsenal fans may as well start planning ahead for the mad dash to the stadium now, with an extra 55 minutes luxury.
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