Arsenal’s Europa League trip to Ukraine descended into farce on Wednesday as their opponents Vorskla Poltava claimed they may not even play after UEFA moved Thursday’s match to Kiev.
Ukraine’s parliament imposed martial law on Monday amid rising tensions with Russia and UEFA relocated the match 210 miles away from Poltava to the capital, citing security concerns.
Unai Emery’s squad landed in Kiev on Wednesday evening to the news that Vorskla were unsure whether the game would go ahead, making a chaotic situation even more absurd.
Unai Emery inspects the pitch at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev ahead of the match with Vorskla
Emery’s squad landed in Kiev to news Vorskla were unsure whether the game would go ahead
Vorskla say they were not told of the stadium switch and were on Wednesday night still arguing that the match should be moved back to Poltava, though their players have travelled to Kiev.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, one of the few senior Arsenal players to have travelled to Ukraine, admitted on Wednesday it was a big blow for their opponents to lose home advantage. Despite Vorskla’s fury, the fixture is set to be played.
Around 500 Arsenal fans had been expected to attend the Europa League clash but it remains to be seen how many will make it to the 70,000-seater Olympic Stadium on Thursday night.
Arsenal, who have already qualified, can top Group E with a win, while victory for Vorskla, who feel UEFA have treated them unfairly, would give them a chance of qualification.
Staff at the 70,000-seater stadium placed a cover over the pitch and were using heaters
Emery and Henrikh Mkhitaryan spoke to the media on the eve of the Europa League clash
Speaking at the Olympic Stadium, where heaters were being used to prepare the pitch with the temperature set to plummet as low as -14C on Thursday, Emery said: ‘It is UEFA’s decision. In the 90 minutes, it is not a very big change. They are playing in Ukraine and not in their town but they can also move their supporters.’
Mkhitaryan was more sympathetic, saying: ‘It is a long trip and, for us, it doesn’t matter where we play. For Poltava it is a big disadvantage because they wanted to play at home.’
UEFA’s decision to move the match has, of course, caused significant disruption as fans who had booked hotels in Poltava scrambled to find new accommodation and made their way to Kiev.
On Wednesday, Arsenal went through the painstaking process of contacting every supporter who travelled to Ukraine to assure them their tickets are still valid for tonight’s encounter.
Arsenal midfielder Matteo Guendouzi boards the plane at Luton Airport on the way to Kiev
Guendouzi and Stephan Lichsteiner on the plane on their way to Kiev on Wednesday
Youngsters Dominic Thompson and Emile Smith Rowe looked happy to be there on the flight
Yet Vorskla vice-president Oleh Lysak claimed his club had received no confirmation of the move to the capital.
Vorskla had sold close to 25,000 tickets and Lysak complained about a lack of information for fans. Some of the Ukrainian side’s supporters even called on their club to refuse to play the match, despite the potential repercussions from UEFA.
In another twist, Vorskla accused Arsenal of not wanting to travel to Poltava.
On Wednesday night, UEFA said in a statement: ‘The urgent decision of UEFA to relocate the match to Kiev was based on the sudden introduction of martial law and the uncertainty of the security situation in some parts of Ukraine — particularly given the extremely short timescale available to evaluate all existing risks.’
Midfielder Aaron Ramsey relaxes on board with a juice as he gets ready for take-off
Defender Carl Jenkinson looks for his seat on the aircraft to Kiev as Arsenal fly out to Ukraine
Also on the journey to the Europa League group game were Joe Willock and Jordi Osei-Tutu