Former Arsenal man Alexander Hleb admits that current side BATE Borisov are huge underdogs for their Europa League tie with the Gunners – not least because they have not taken the field since December.

Arsenal travel to Belarus on Thursday for the first leg of the last-32 tie, before welcoming BATE to the Emirates Stadium the following week.

But BATE face an uphill battle, having been out of action for more than two months due to the Belarusian Premier League’s winter break.

That lack of competitive playing time puts the Premier League side at a distinct advantage, a fact that their veteran star is only too aware of.

“Arsenal are at the peak of readiness – for them this is a huge plus,” Hleb explained to Belarusian newspaper Pressball.

“It will be hard for us, and very much so. But we will try to squeeze the maximum out of the physical form that we have gained.

“The usual preparation is under way. We held a training camp in Turkey and got into shape, as far as possible at the current stage.

‘”It is clear that we did not achieve ideal conditions in such a short time. But we will try to look decent at home.

“We are not yet ready (to play at) 100 per cent, but the coaching staff decided not to force anything – realising that the guys had to rest after a hard season. And now we are working – in general, everything is according to plan.”

BATE have also endured a difficult winter in the transfer market, seeing stars like Denis Polyakov and Maksim Volodko seek new climes.

“Everyone will be missed,” Hleb added when asked about the club’s departures.

“Each loss is not easy. But such is life: it is clear that now the leadership is thinking about how to replace the departed guys – and get stronger.

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“The [new signings] need time to adapt to the rhythm and pattern of the team’s game, to feel each other and all new partners. I hope they will have a good season and help the club.”

Hleb, 37, spent three seasons at Arsenal from 2005 to 2008, before swapping north London for Barcelona.

He made a total of 130 appearances for the Gunners, and earned a Champions League runners-up medal in 2006 when Arsenal lost out to Barcelona in the final.


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