Chelsea vs. Arsenal
Venue: Baku Olympic Stadium
Kick off: 8PM
Premier League rivals Chelsea and Arsenal face off in the 2019 Europa League final at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan this evening.
This is just the second all-English final in UEFA’s secondary competition, after Tottenham Hotspur against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1972 UEFA Cup, and is considered a make-or-break match for both sides.
A fifth-placed league finish in Unai Emery’s first campaign at the helm will only be considered a success if Arsenal come out on top in midweek, while Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri has been under pressure all season long and could do with winning some silverware.
All the talk in the build-up to tonight’s match – away from the logistical issues both sets of supporters face for this mammoth trek to the Caspian Sea – has centred around the future of Chelsea boss Sarri.
The Italian has reportedly already agreed a deal with Juventus to become their next head coach, regardless of the outcome of the Europa League final, having failed to win over Blues fans with his style of play.
As defender David Luiz has pointed out, however, this cannot be considered a poor campaign by any means. Chelsea finished third in the Premier League, guaranteeing them a place in the Champions League next season – a luxury Arsenal do not have – while also coming runners-up in the EFL Cup.
Adding a second Europa League crown to their collection, six years on from their previous triumph, would not be the worst way for Sarri to bow out if this is indeed the final match of his short-lived tenure.
This season’s run to the final has plenty of similarities to the one in 2013, when disliked boss Rafael Benitez lifted the trophy only to bow out a few days later. Winning trophies alone is never enough for demanding owner Roman Abramovich, with Antonio Conte being sacked less than 12 months ago after winning the Premier League and FA Cup during his two years in charge.
Including that 2-1 victory over Benfica in Amsterdam under Benitez, the Blues have won four of their five major European finals (two Cup Winners’ Cups, one Champions League and one Europa League). Among English teams, only Manchester United (five) and Liverpool (eight) have won more such matches.
Chelsea have already won 11 matches in this season’s competition, progressing through the group stage with ease before overcoming Malmo, Dynamo Kiev, Slavia Prague and Eintracht Frankfurt in the knockout rounds.
Sarri’s men required penalties to get the job done against Frankfurt, having been pegged back in the second leg at Stamford Bridge to draw 2-2 on aggregate at the end of 180 minutes. Kepa Arrizabalaga was the hero thanks to a couple of saves in the shootout, setting up this final with Arsenal.
On the other hand, a poor run of form at the end of the Premier League campaign, winning just one game from six before their final day dead-rubber against Burnley, means that Emery missed out on a top-four finish in his first season on these shores.
That will be considered a big disappointment for the Spaniard, though he does have the safety net of the Europa League. This is a competition he knows well, having come out on top three years running with Sevilla, and it provides a direct route into the Champions League for the winners.
It is fair to say, then, that it all comes down to this one match for Emery. Like Sarri, he is under pressure to achieve success while instilling his own style of play on his group of players; unlike his opposite number, though, he is not having to fend off questions regarding his job status.
Victory for Arsenal today would make Emery only the fourth manager to win the UEFA Cup/Europa League with two different teams, after Giovanni Trapattoni (with Juventus and Inter Milan), Jose Mourinho (Porto and Man United) and Benitez (Valencia and Chelsea).
The Gunners fell well short in both domestic cup competitions this term, being knocked out of the EFL Cup by Tottenham in the quarter-finals and by Man United in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Regardless of all that, the 2018-19 campaign can be given a positive spin with victory over Chelsea. This will be Arsenal’s sixth final in a major UEFA competition, equal with their opponents – only Man United (seven) and Liverpool (14, including 2019 Champions League) have reached more among English clubs.
However, the North London outfit have lost four of their five major European finals, with their only victory coming in the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup against Parma. They have lost each of their last three, in fact – the 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup, 2000 UEFA Cup and 2006 Champions League finals.
That is a poor record that needs improving on and, unlike against Barcelona in the 2006 showpiece in Paris, Arsenal will consider themselves to at least be on a par with their opponents this time around.
Arsenal can enjoy some rare success on the continent by overcoming their London foes 2,500 miles from home and, on a personal level, history is also there to be made for Emery in what could yet turn out to be a successful maiden campaign at the Emirates Stadium.
Chelsea possible XI: Kepa, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Luiz, Emerson, Kovacic, Jorginho, Barkley, Pedro, Giroud, Hazard.
Arsenal possible XI: Cech, Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal, Maitland-Niles, Torreira, Xhaka, Kolasinac, Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette.