They are separated by six miles in London, yet traveling more than 2,800 to Baku in Azerbaijan to settle the matter of Europa League champions.
For Arsenal, it is their lone remaining path to the Champions League, otherwise a third straight year of Thursday night and Sunday night matches await as Europa League participants.
For Chelsea, with their Champions League berth secure, it is more difficult to ascertain the motivations beyond those of a personal level. It could be the last match in charge for Maurizio Sarri, who has never lifted a trophy at any level of coaching, be it his potential lone season in London or traversing the multiple levels of Italian football.
It could also be the last game with Chelsea for superstar Eden Hazard, who has been linked to Real Madrid at the hip for nearly two seasons running. The Belgium international appears set for a nine-figure move to the La Liga giants, and that could be part of an exodus of older players as the Pensioners could be reconfiguring their roster ahead of a potential transfer ban handed down by FIFA.
All told, the subplots driving each side ahead of this match have completely drowned out most of the talk involving the actual 90 or 120 minutes of football for this London derby moved east.
Potential Starting XIs
For Arsenal, the talk ahead of this match has centered around two players — one who will not be there and one who may or may not start. Armenia international Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who at the very worst would have been on the 18-man roster and quite possibly could have started if manager Unai Emery had used a 4-2-3-1 formation, will not accompany the team to Azerbaijan as part of a long-running dispute regarding his personal safety in the country due to ethnic and territorial conflicts between his native country and Azerbaijan.
This is the third time Mkhitaryan has not accompanied his side to Azerbaijan for a match, also missing out while playing for Borussia Dortmund as well as for Arsenal in October during group play when they played FK Qarabag. Mkhitaryan announced his decision in a two-part Twitter post on May 21:
The Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry claimed it has made personal guarantees to UEFA regarding Mkhitaryan’s safety while in Baku and added they “very much regret this unwarranted decision taken, as we understand, collectively by Arsenal, the player and his family.”
UEFA, football’s governing body in Europe, confirmed receiving these plans in a statement they released last week, noting, “Uefa sought and received assurances regarding the player’s safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country.”
“As a result of these guarantees, a comprehensive security plan was developed and given to the club.”
“While the club acknowledges the efforts that Uefa and the Azeri government have gone to in this matter, we respect the personal decision not to travel with the player.”
The other source of Gunners intrigue involves keeper Petr Cech, who has served between the sticks through Arsenal’s run to the final. The 37-year-old, who won the 2013 Europa League title with Chelsea, has been linked to a return to Stamford Bridge as the club’s sporting director after this match, which created a whole new distraction for Emery to deal with.
The first-year Arsenal manager and Europa League savant — Emery lifted this trophy three straight years as Sevilla boss from 2014-16 — again demurred Tuesday when asked if he will start Cech over Bernd Leno and turned his focus to the primary task at hand, getting the Gunners into the Champions League.
“The Champions League is our objective and we knew it was going to be difficult when we started the season. And now we are with the possibility to achieve that and our challenge tomorrow is to win one title and have the possibility to play next year in the Champions League. But we are in our process and our progress and now I can say the same as when we started: it is going to be difficult.”
Cech sounded like a man who is comfortable regardless of his role in a wide-ranging interview with the Evening Standard released Tuesday. Cech noted the differences in internally applied pressure between the clubs, which he feels has taken a step back under Emery compared to predecessor Arsene Wenger — and pales in comparison to his former club.
“I feel that when Arsenal need to win, we win,” he said. “You go to Athens in the last Champions League group game [of 2015] needing to win 2-0 and you win 3-0. No matter where, we win, because that fire was right behind us as we had to really win. The pressure was what was pushing us.
“There was always a cushion, there was always, ‘It is not such a disaster’. We should probably create more pressure on everybody because that would give people more to think about.
“At Chelsea, at the times when we drew, it felt like a funeral in the dressing room. It was so bad. If we drew against a big team at home, it was like, ‘Oh no, it is impossible we didn’t win at home’. It came from everywhere: the players, the coach. Since the start when I was there, the pressure was there every game.”
Emery is expected to use a 3-4-1-2 set-up that has Mesut Ozil as pivot behind strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette. In their first full season together, the pair have combined for 50 goals, with Aubameyang scoring 31. The Gabon international had a team-best eight in Europa League play, with Lacazette contributing five as they accounted for more than half of Arsenal’s goals in this competition.
Behind the trio, Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka will serve as central midfield deputies. It has been a solid season for Torreira following his move from Sampdoria following the World Cup. The Uruguay international was eased into the first team by Emery early in the season and has shown plenty of promise. He and Xhaka will have their hands full trying to prevent Jorginho from pulling strings in Chelsea’s offence as well as closing down space when Hazard has the ball at the top of the final third.
Arsenal are expected to go with a three-man backline, anchored by Laurent Koscielny in the middle. Sokratis, though, will be under the most scrutiny as the right back has been uneven at times as Emery has used a three-man backline more following the season-ending injury to Hector Bellerin in January and pushing Sead Kolasinac higher on the wing.
Chelsea arrive in Azerbaijan in some ways maintaining their status quo under owner Roman Abramovich — they have a manager whose days are rumoured to be numbered and a superstar pondering an exit from Stamford Bridge. There has been no lack of drama in the first season under Sarri, whose eccentric ways and stubborn personnel patterns have grated on the Blues faithful despite their relative success in England and finals appearance in the Carabao Cup.
The Italian gaffer added another layer of tension Tuesday when he stormed off the pitch in frustration during practice, apparently upset the team was not taking to the task of absorbing a set piece he was trying to install. The open practice session also included a kerfuffle between centre back David Luiz and striker Gonzalo Higuain, though a team spokesman downplayed the row and attributed Sarri’s stomping off as being more upset by the set piece failure.
Like his Arsenal counterpart, Sarri must do without some key pieces — Luiz’s partner in central defence Antonio Rudiger is out with a knee injury and promising midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek suffered a torn Achilles in the club’s charity match against the New England Revolution in the United States three days after the completion of the Premier League season. In Rudiger’s place will be Andreas Christensen, while Loftus-Cheek’s injury thins a potentially dangerously depleted midfield.
Sarri is still sweating on the fitness of midfielder N’Golo Kante, who has been trying to work through a hamstring injury that sidelined the France international for the second leg of their semifinal tie versus Eintracht Frankfurt and the Premier League finale. Kante only did individual drills in the final practice Tuesday and was on the pitch for only a half-hour.
“I don’t know,’ Sarri admitted Tuesday about Kante’s availability. “He had a little problem on Saturday, a very little problem with his knee. It’s not really a very serious injury. The problem is the timing because we had only four days to try to recover him. We are trying. At the moment we don’t know. We will try until the last moment. We will try tomorrow, but at the moment we don’t know.”
“He is 50/50 at the moment.”
If Kante is unavailable, Sarri’s midfield will likely be comprised of Mateo Kovacic, Jorginho and Ross Barkley from left to right, though neither flank player specialises in defensive midfield duties at Kante’s elite level.
Up front, Sarri also must choose between Higuain and Olivier Giroud as his starting centre-forward. Giroud, who recently put pen to paper on a one-year extension, scored 10 goals in Europa League play — putting the France international and World Cup winner joint-top with Frankfurt’s Luka Jovic — has been part of four FA Cup-winning squads, including last year’s with Chelsea and three with Arsenal that included him scoring the match-winner versus his current club.
Higuain has struggled to find a comfort level since his January arrival from Juventus, scoring just five goals in 18 matches in all competitions while being flagged for offsides 14 times. With Giroud’s link-up play with Hazard, Willian, and Pedro well-valued by the satellite trio around the towering Frenchman, it seems likely Giroud will get the nod here to help Chelsea claim this trophy.
Last, but certainly not least is Hazard, who for all intents and purposes, appears to be donning the Chelsea No. 10 for the last time. The superstar has shown little interest in extending his time at Stamford Bridge beyond next season when his contract runs out, hence the speculation regarding his future when the Blues can still demand a sizable transfer fee, but he has been all business heading into the final and wants the season to end on a positive note.
“It is a European competition so for me, for the club, for the manager, for the fans, it is something important,” Hazard said Monday. “When you play a final it does not matter whether it is the Champions League, Europa League or League Cup: you just want to win … If it is my last game, I hope to bring the trophy. My first trophy at Chelsea was the Europa League, so it would be a nice last trophy.
“At the moment, nothing has happened, so I can’t say anything. It’s in the hands of the clubs. But I can put it aside. I have done it during a full season right now, and I have played reasonably well. So I stay in that mode: just thinking about football. After the final, we will see what happens.”
Hazard only played in seven of Chelsea’s 14 Europa League matches, getting more involved once the Pensioners advanced to the knockout rounds. One of the more contentious points during Sarri’s run through the season was leaving him on the bench for the first hour of their first-leg semifinal tie at Frankfurt, but Hazard did contribute an assist in the second-leg draw before converting the decisive penalty to send Chelsea through to the final.
The home team won both matches domestically, with Chelsea recording a 3-2 victory back in August when Marcos Alonso scored the winner on 81 minutes. Pedro and the since-departed Alvaro Morata staked the Pensioners to a 2-0 lead in the first 20 minutes before Mkhitaryan scored a goal and set up Alex Iwobi’s equaliser in a four-minute stretch just before intermission.
At the Emirates in January, Arsenal ran out comfortable 2-0 winners on first-half goals by Lacazette and Koscielny, with Chelsea’s lone shot on target not coming until eight minutes from time. Sarri lit into the team in the post-match presser following that defeat, speaking in his native Italian he was so upset and wondering aloud why “this group of players was so difficult to motivate.”
The teams have played to a virtual stalemate in the Premier League era, with Arsenal owning 22 wins to Chelsea’s 21 in addition to the 18 draws. This is the first match in European competition between the sides since the 2004 Champions League quarterfinals in which Chelsea advanced 3-2 on aggregate on Wayne Bridge’s goal in the 87th minute at Highbury in the second leg.
Arsenal lead the all-time series with 77 victories to Chelsea’s 63, and the sides have split the points on 57 other occasions.
The sarcastic answer is “your guess is as good as mine,” but Cech’s quote regarding the lack of urgency — at least as he perceives it — is the kind of thing that sets off alarm bells. Because of where Chelsea are thin — in the midfield and with a second-choice centre back in Christensen — one gets the sense Sarri might have his side go all out in attack for the first 45 minutes and then try to hold out in the second 45.
If Kante is unable to play, that is a huge problem for Chelsea because it robs them of someone who can regain possession in the midfield. Not that he will mind all that much because he is so good on the ball, but that would also involve Hazard dropping deeper into midfield to collect passes from Jorginho and keep him more central in attack.
Kante’s potential absence puts a ton of pressure on Kovacic and Barkley to be two-way players in this match and also forces Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta to be judicious on their forays forward. The hedge is Giroud is preferred to Higuain for this contest since the Argentine simply lacks the link-up skills Giroud can create. Additionally, this is a chance for Giroud to show the nous of dealing with his former teammates in countless practices on the Arsenal grounds — the Frenchman knows how to hit the Gunners where it hurts.
Arsenal’s hopes revolve around Ozil, whom they cannot afford to have one of his middling matches. If Kante is absent, that will give the one-time Germany international an extra beat on the ball, which is absolutely vital to his playmaking and creativity. Aubameyang and Lacazette are prolific and lethal strikers when they get the ball in favourable positions — they do not squander many gilt-edged chances.
The question is how many they will get from Ozil, who should be given free rein to roam the midfield in attack. If there is one concern beyond Arsenal being up-and-down defensively overall on the season, it is Xhaka. The Switzerland international has a penchant for bookings, and facing Hazard is the wrong opponent for the Gunners since one of those challenges could result in a red card. Xhaka is the right play in midfield over Matteo Guendouzi, but Torreira may be the better option as a shadow on the Belgian.
It will be evident early how both clubs have dealt with the distractions in the fortnight-plus leading to this match in the first half-hour, though one gets the sense this is old hat for Chelsea given their history. That is why the expectation is for the Blues to come out aggressively and ride that wave to a victory in Baku.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Chelsea 2, Arsenal 1.
ROAD TO BAKU
9/20 — @ PAOK W 1-0 9/20 — vs. Vorskla Poltava W 4-2
10/4 — vs Vol Midi FC W 1-0 10/4 — @ FK Qarabag W 3-0
10/25 — vs BATE W 3-1 10/25 — @ Sporting CP W 1-0
11/8 — @ BATE W 1-0 11/8 — vs Sporting CP D 0-0
11/29 — vs PAOK 4-0 11/29 — @ Vorskla Poltava W 3-0
12/13 — @ Vol Midi FC D 2-2 12/13 — vs FK Qarabag W 1-0
2/14 — @ Malmo W 2-1 2/14 — @ BATE L 0-1
2/21 — vs Malmo W 3-0 (5-1 agg) 2/21 — vs BATE W 3-0 (3-1 agg)
3/7 — vs Dynamo Kiev W 3-0 3/7 — @ Rennes L 1-3
3/14 — @ Dynamo Kiev W 5-0 (8-0 agg) 3/14 — vs Rennes W 3-0 (4-3 agg)
4/11 — @ Slavia Prague W 1-0 4/11 — vs Napoli W 2-0
4/18 — vs Slavia Prague W 4-3 (5-3 agg) 4/18 — @ Napoli W 1-0 (3-0 agg)
5/2 — @ Eintracht Frankfurt D 1-1 5/2 — vs Valencia W 3-1
5/9 — vs Eintracht Frankfurt D 1-1 (4-3 PKs) 5/9 — @ Valencia W 4-2 (7-3 agg)
Chelsea Goals Arsenal Goals
Olivier Giroud — 10 Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang — 8
Callum Hudson-Odoi — 4 Alexander Lacazette — 5
Ruben Loftus-Cheek — 4 Aaron Ramsey — 2 (1)
Pedro — 4 Emile Smith Rowe — 2
Willian — 3 Sokratis — 2
Marcos Alonso — 2 Danny Welbeck — 2
Ross Barkley — 2 Matteo Guendouzi — 1
Alvaro Morata — 2 Alex Iwobi — 1
Own Goals — 1 Ainsley Maitland-Niles — 1
Shkodran Mustafi — 1
Mesut Ozil — 1
Joe Willock — 1
(Petr Cech/Olivier Giroud photo courtesy Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)
(Europa League trophy photo courtesy Arsenal FC official Twitter account)
(Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang/Alexander Lacazette photo courtesy Arsenal FC official Twitter account)
(N’Golo Kante photo courtesy Chelsea FC official Twitter account)
(Eden Hazard photo courtesy Chelsea FC official Twitter account)