Ostersunds playing quirky underdogs but serious about upsetting Arsenal
OSTERSUND -- Outwardly, Ostersunds seem to have embraced their status as the quirky underdog from an exotic location ahead of Thursday's Europa League clash with giant favourites Arsenal.
The Swedish club's social media accounts this week have been filled with light-hearted quips about the cold weather, snowy conditions and small arena that Arsenal will face here in the first leg of their round-of-32 tie. There was even a small dig at Arsene Wenger, as Ostersunds tweeted a pledge from coach Graham Potter that he will "play his best team against Arsenal!" -- a response to the Gunners boss saying he will take the game seriously enough to field his strongest side.
Starting to really like Ostersund. This says: "Graham Potter's message: will play his best team against Arsenal." In response to Wenger saying the same. https://t.co/2wuScZ3jPj— Mattias Karén (@MattiasKaren) February 13, 2018
But behind the jovial humour, Ostersunds are dead serious in their belief that they can cause a massive upset on Thursday.
"It's all about a mental game toward our supporters and opponents," Ostersunds chairman Daniel Kindberg told ESPN FC, in reference to the tone on social media. "But we are totally focused on winning tomorrow, and the players and coaches themselves are increasingly withdrawing into their own tunnel. If we are brave enough, we will win."
That may not be as crazily optimistic as it might sound. Ostersunds, a club whose annual budget is around £4 million without the Europa League influx (or less than a third of what Arsenal are paying Mesut Ozil under his new deal), shouldn't have much of a chance against their mighty opponents on paper. But they've beaten Galatasaray and Hertha Berlin -- and drawn with Athletic Bilbao -- to get to this stage, showing that they shouldn't be taken lightly.
Then there are the playing conditions -- although those will not be quite as arctic as Arsenal may have feared. Ostersunds had jokingly posted photos on Twitter this week claiming that the dressing rooms for the 8,000-capacity Jamtkraft Arena were inside an igloo, and made a Facebook video advising visiting English fans on how to dress for the cold.
However, temperatures were only a couple of degrees below zero on Wednesday -- warmer than the average for this time of year -- although several feet of snow are still blanketing the city of about 50,000 people.
"Cold, is this cold?" Ostersunds coach Potter quipped in his news conference. "Two weeks ago it was minus-23, that was cold. And that wouldn't have been pleasant for anybody. Nobody benefits from those conditions. I think now it's quite pleasant. It's like a spring morning here for us."
Arsenal may not feel the same way, although neither Potter nor Kinderg are expecting the weather to be an advantage.
"All humans have the same DNA and my skin freezes just as much as their skin. So there's no biological advantage," Kindberg said. "But it could be a mental thing when they step off the plane tonight and it's cold and windy and there's five feet of snow on the ground. Perhaps it can have a marginal effect. But they're such super professionals, and it's not the first time they're playing in the cold."
Regardless of what happens on the pitch, there's no doubt that this game is a fantastic advertisement for Ostersunds, who were completely unknown outside Sweden before this season. In fact, they weren't particularly well-known within the country either until just a few years ago, such has their rapid rise been.
When Potter took over the team in 2010, they had just been demoted to the Swedish fourth tier. But the Englishman quickly led them to three promotions and into the top tier and the club won its first major trophy last year by securing the Swedish Cup.
By now, Potter and his players are used to exceeding expectations. Why should Thursday be any different?
"When you look at finances and resources, we shouldn't be playing Arsenal in the final 32 of the Europa League. But we are, and we're here," Potter told ESPN FC in an interview. "The players have dreams and ambitions and hopes, we have to help them be prepared enough so they can have a chance to show what they're all about."
Potter has won widespread praise in Sweden for embracing an attack-minded and possession-based style of football, while making sure his players take an active role in the community and attend cultural events away from the training pitch. His European success has now put him on the map back home in England as well, where he has been the focal point of most media coverage ahead of this match. But Potter himself is keeping his feet firmly on the ground and insisted he doesn't view this game as an opportunity to put himself in the shop window for bigger jobs in England.
"You can't control what people write, I think it's just a reflection of the story and what we've done as a club, and people have come across the story and then think, 'Oh that's quite a nice, interesting story,'" Potter said. "We have to understand that this game is sort of a moment for us. It won't take away the six or seven years that we've had previously. And it won't take away what we'll hopefully try to do in the future as well. ... I think this is a moment for the club and a moment for the players, to show what they can do. I've been doing what I do for seven years now. I'm happy here, and I'm respectful of the fact that in football, if you think too far ahead you can come under big problems. I have enough to think about with this game and helping the club improve, and then enjoy the moment, enjoy the experience, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people in Ostersund to have this game."
Still, this European success may come at a price for Ostersunds if Potter was to get a high-paying offer from a better team. But Kindberg, who hired Potter eight years ago, isn't worried.
"I think we can keep him even if we win the Europa League," Kindberg said. And there was no hint of a joke in that statement.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.