For the second time in a week and the fourth time in a year we are playing Astra Giurgiu of Romania. This time it is for a place in the group stage of the Europa League which will mean an additional six Thursday games between now and the end of the year if we overcome them successfully. Will we be able to cope if we get through?
Last Thursday we drew 1-1 in Romania. The result should have been so much better. Shortly before the Astra equaliser we missed a really good opportunity to extend our lead to 2-0 which would have put us in a very strong position for the second leg. But it was not to be so we go into this game all square with an away goal.
We were not particularly impressive in our opening Premier League game on Sunday but nevertheless we claimed three points with Antonio’s late goal. It is still early in the season and we have many first choice players unavailable at the moment so let’s not get too disheartened. Some people on social media are really depressed about the way we have started but there is a long way to go this season. And if you compare the same games with last season (when we lost at home to Bournemouth and drew away at Chelsea) then we are already two points better off!
Astra Giurgiu may be the Romanian champions but they are in disarray as a club. They have numerous off field problems which are well documented, and their league performances are going from bad to worse. Before we played them last week they sat in ninth place in their domestic league. At the weekend they took a 5-1 hammering at CFR Cluj and have now sunk into eleventh place. They would be even lower if it wasn’t for teams close to the bottom (including CFR Cluj) who have had points deducted this season for “irregularities”.
So this game should be straightforward, shouldn’t it? If we put out a half decent team (and Slav has confirmed that we are taking this competition seriously) then there is no reason why we shouldn’t progress comfortably into the group stage. Scoring seems to be our problem but hopefully we will have some of our creative players back (Dimi and Manu?) and open up their defence at will. An early goal or two would be good – I am hoping for a 3-0 win at least.
The group stage draw takes place in Monaco on Friday with the first two Europa league games scheduled for 15th and 29th September, which are prior to our weekend games away at West Brom and then home to Middlesbrough. The next two European games are scheduled for 20th October and 3rd November, prior to the Premier League games at home to Sunderland and Stoke. So if we get through this match, and you prefer your Saturday games, you should savour our home game against Watford on Saturday 10th September which kicks off at 3pm. Because if we beat Astra, the Watford game will be our only Saturday game in the first half of the season until at least December! I hope you are free on Sundays!