A Game That Means Everything And Nothing
Two men brought in from the continent with glowing reputations, two men tasked with returning their clubs back to the promised land after popular reigns had gone stale and their financial muscle diminished.
Tonight, Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri go head to head knowing this 90 minutes will likely define their time in English football. Who will walk away with a hard-earned International Bakulaureate in European footy?
Sarri has already hit his target of Champions League footy, yet feels like a dead man walking. Win or lose, few would raise an eyebrow if this were to be a final appearance in his shabby club tracksuit, such is the apathy around Stamford Bridge and his frequent outbursts aimed at a patchy and ageing squad that’s no stranger to shedding managers of their own accord.
Not that Roman Abramovic needs much help with that. Of all the petro-billionaire football clubs, the Blues stick out as one particularly hung up on trophies. These days even winning them isn’t enough. Just ask Tony Conte or Rafa.
But for all the hand wringing about the modern treatment of managers, Chelsea are the smarmy reply to those who shrilly preach perseverance. It makes zero sense but they’re doing it ‘wrong’ and far more successfully. Since Jose Mourinho’s first spell ended 12 years ago, no man has lasted more than two years in the hot seat, yet the Pensioners have still chalked up 10 major trophies.
Not a bloke who looks thrilled with his lot.
It’s not just the owner that Sarri has allegedly struggled to convince, however. Although the infamous Kepa incident offered an air of sympathy, the fans had lost patience long before the Carabao Cup final. The weekly Kovacic/Barkley hokey-cokey became a running joke that quickly stopped being funny when it was shown to be predictable and futile.
Regardless of this result, Chelsea is such a notorious graveyard for coaches and Sarri’s got more than enough credit in the bank to walk off into the sunset and straight into negotiations for the now vacant Juve and AC Milan gigs. He’ll be fine.
Unlike his counterpart, this game will have little or no bearing on Unai Emery’s immediate position at Arsenal, given the club’s higher regard for stability over swift, tangible success. Of course, a first European trophy since 1994 would do wonders for winning hearts and minds of those yet to be convinced by the Spaniard’s meticulous methods.
But a return to Europe’s top table next season is the ultimate prize. Emery would throw off the shackles imposed by his legendary predecessor. He could draw a definitive line under the Wenger-era and let his own dynasty commence in earnest.
A series of dire results in the second half of this season have exposed enough colossal flaws in personnel to make Theresa May’s cabinet looks competent and well rounded. The squad is desperate for a makeover but their ability to woo potential suitors hinges precariously on whether or not they are playing for the greatest prizes and the swollen transfer kitty that comes with it.
Cech, Everyone’s Mate
You couldn’t name a more consummate professional. At the risk of getting too misty-eyed, if anyone deserves to script the final scene of a glittering 18-year playing career with his own fair hands, it’s the helmeted hero.
The opposition for the send-off could not be any apter – a fraught London derby against the very club where he not only tasted so much glory but also where he will take up the mantle of sporting director as he embarks on a new chapter.
If you're even suggesting a whiff of skulduggery from this chap then you are destined for the hell fire.
And whilst some Gooners will never get their head around not playing your best keeper in final, Cech’s definitely earned this one. The veteran has a 70%-win ratio in this Europa League campaign (where 10 of his 21 total appearances have come) logging six clean sheets along the way. Bernd Leno has the same number of the shut outs but from considerably more appearances (32), along the way.
For me the only question is whether he’ll add to the one Europa League final assist he already has to his name thanks to this monster throw in 2013.
Whilst it would go against so much of Emery’s natural demeanour, there’s a decent argument for turning this final into an attacking slugfest. Well-matched/equally-flawed in midfield and defence, Arsenal have the obvious edge up front. Should both teams truly go toe to toe with each other, there’s only going to be one outcome.
If Aubameyang and Lacazette fire on all cylinders, the Gunners should romp to victory. As the season’s gone on, the pair have developed a formidable bond off the pitch and cultivated a winning partnership on it.
At least one of them has netted in all but five of their team’s 21 league wins this season whilst all competitions, the duo has had a hand in 63% of their total goals. They’re on a better wavelength than Magic FM.
Chelsea, on the other hand, are basically praying Eden Hazard has one last special performance, especially with the head-in-hands stupidity of the injury to their other creative spark, Ruben Loftus Cheek.
Beyond that, Chelsea will be pinning their hopes on an old warhorse deemed not good enough for Arsenal 18 months ago. Like Cech, Oli Giroud’s earned his start, bagging 10 goals to lead the competition’s individual scoring charts.
The dashing Frog has been understandably miffed with the number of times he’s featured in a Blues shirt this term and will require zero extra motivation against his former club having watched Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain fecklessly drift around up front in the league all season. With a potential transfer ban incoming, however, he could soon find himself a vital member of the squad.
What money on this guy breaking the world record for a muted celebration tonight?
Finally, the game will no doubt signal the end of Higuain’s underwhelming stint on these shores. He can look forward to a lifetime of being filed next to Alex Pato in ‘Worst Serie A Loans’ lists, forever more.
Signed as a risk-free roll of the dice, a meagre five goals in 16 showings for Chelsea isn’t the return Sarri had hoped for. On his day you’d struggle to find a better finisher than Gonzo but the pizzas and gelato have taken their toll on a 31 year old who’s lack of dynamism has been cruelly exposed by the pace of the Premier League.
Injuries and Absences
When the final whistle goes on Wednesday (not long before 2am local time in Baku), it will be almost 42 weeks since the Premier League campaign began. It’s no surprise then, that both teams have their share of injuries. Chelsea have suffered blows recently while in North London, they’ve had more time to lick their wounds.
Kante and Loftus Cheek’s absence in midfield are of greatest significance and could force the lesser spotted ‘Barkacic’ pairing flanking Jorginho whilst Antonio Rudiger is a considerable miss from the heart of defence.
Ramsey’s unavailability is the biggest blow to the Gunners but they’ve had plenty of time to establish a Plan B. Ozil is defensively less reliable than a rural bus company, so Torreira and Xhaka will be tasked with shielding the back four whilst Iwobi does whatever it is he does, frantically and slightly further up the pitch.
There’s no doubt this final is going to be more than a little odd. Given the 6,000-mile round trip from London to the Land of Fire, many fans have stayed away. About 90% of the 60,000-capacity stadium has gone to neutrals or sponsors. It will be a little like a World Cup game with fans keen to cheer just about anything.
Emery has a 60%-win ratio in this competition and has won all three of the finals his Sevilla team reached. While Sarri’s success rate is closer to 80%, it’s important to stress that he’s only been involved in a third of the amount of games and is yet to lift a major title in his career.
Finally, will Roman Abramovic finally turn up in Azerbaijan tonight? Typical, first whiff of glory and a lad who’s barely watched a kick all season’s there to drink in the glory. What is he, literally banned from entering the UK? Pfft. Honestly, these people…
Where are you watching the game? Find pubs showing Europa League final now by following the link and searching by location.