Premier League familiar foes Chelsea and Arsenal face off in the 2019 Europa League final at the Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan on Wednesday evening.
This will be just the second all-English final in UEFA’s secondary competition after Tottenham Hotspur squared up against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1972 UEFA Cup final. This encounter is considered a make-or-break match for both sides who are hungry for success this season.
It has been a topsy-turvy season in Unai Emery’s first campaign at the helm and it will only be considered a success if the Gunners comes out victorious in the final, while Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri has been under pressure all season long and could do with winning some silverware as well.
Chelsea’s run to the final has a lot 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 are 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.
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 has 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.
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 in charge.
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.
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.
Their fifth-placed finish in the Premier League can also be considered a disappointment, meanwhile, considering that they were odds-on favourites to finish fourth with a month of the season to go.
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 has suffered a huge blow ahead of their trip to Baku with the news that N’Golo Kante suffered an injury setback in training, which is expected to rule him out of Wednesday’s match.
That puts more pressure on the likes of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley to remain fit, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek already confirmed out because of an Achilles injury sustained in a Stateside friendly shortly after the Premier League season finished.
Defender Antonio Rudiger and forward Callum Hudson-Odoi are Chelsea’s other two confirmed absentees, with neither travelling to Azerbaijan.
Sarri has a decision to make with regards to who leads his line. Olivier Giroud has been given the nod more often than not in the Europa League and he has sent out a message by finding the net 10 times in the competition – the most by a Chelsea player in a single European season – and is favourite to start ahead of Gonzalo Higuain here.
As for Arsenal, they will be without Henrikh Mkhitaryan for political reasons, which Emery admits is bad news for his side – the midfielder has been used 11 times so far in this season’s competition.
Aaron Ramsey will not be given the chance to say a final farewell to supporters, meanwhile, as he damaged his thigh against Napoli last month and is definitely out, as are Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Barcelona loanee Denis Suarez.
Emery has not yet ruled Danny Welbeck out of contention, but the English forward – who will depart the club in the summer – has not played since November and will surely play no part in this huge match.
Arsenal’s last eight Europa League goals have been scored by either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (four) or Alexandre Lacazette (four).
Chelsea possible starting lineup:
Kepa; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Luiz, Emerson; Kovacic, Jorginho, Barkley; Pedro, Giroud, Hazard
Arsenal possible starting lineup:
Cech; Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal; Maitland-Niles, Torreira, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ozil; Aubameyang, Lacazette
Head To Head
Arsenal versus Chelsea will become the first fixture to played in the FA Cup final, EFL Cup final and a major European final.
Wednesday’s clash will mark the third time that two teams from the same nation have faced off in the Europa League final, after Porto vs. Braga in 2011 and Atletico Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao in 2012.
This is the 198th meeting between the sides in all competitions but only the third in Europe – they also met in the 2003-04 Champions League quarter-finals, with the Blues progressing 3-2 on aggregate.
Arsenal eased to a 2-0 win when the sides met in a Premier League clash at the Emirates Stadium in January, while Chelsea carved out a 3-2 victory in the reverse fixture at the start of the campaign.
Arsenal impressed in the latter stages of the knockout rounds by overcoming Napoli and Valencia with convincing displays as they went one better than last season when crashing out in the semis under Arsene Wenger.
Chelsea has proven pedigree in UEFA’s secondary competition, having gone all the way in their only previous participation in 2013, though they have some injury problems to contend with.
Only two points and two places separated the sides at the end of the regular campaign so a tight match can be expected in Baku. We are tipping this one to finish all square, and then it comes down to a battle of nerves from the penalty spot. So our prediction is Arsenal to win on penalties.