Chelsea vs Arsenal – Europa League final match preview
Chelsea prevailed 3-2 when hosting Arsenal at Stamford Bridge back in August and enjoyed a pretty smooth passage through to the last four of this competition. The Blues dropped just two points in their group, before easing past Malmo, Dynamo Kiev and Slavia Prague with few hiccups. However, Maurizio Sarri’s men were pushed all the way to penalties by Eintracht Frankfurt following a couple of 1-1 draws.
It was fitting that talismanic playmaker Eden Hazard netted the deciding spot-kick in London, because the Blues look ever-more reliable on the Belgium star for moments of magic.
Sarri insisted: “We were in trouble three months ago and, here in England, if you’re in trouble, the level of opponents is very high and it’s not easy to overcome difficulties. We were able to do it. So now we deserve to win a trophy.” Frankfurt manager Adi Hutter gave an insight into how the Blues can still look shaky when the going gets tough, though. He commented: “The Chelsea players were anxious, shouting at each other, and the Chelsea fans were nervous.”
The Blues are hoping that N’Golo Kante will be ready for the Final, with Sarri stating that the French midfielder needs a couple of weeks’ rest to recover from a thigh injury.
Antonio Rudiger is definitely ruled out after undergoing knee surgery, as is Callum Hudson-Odoi following Achilles surgery. Ruben Loftus-Cheek will likely get the nod in midfield over Mateo Kovacic, providing the England international is fit.
Sarri faces a big call on whether to start Olivier Giroud or Gonzalo Higuain up front, though the former should get the nod given that he is the Europa League’s joint-top scorer with 10 goals.
Arsenal have also shown plenty of frailties this season, particularly away from home, but facing familiar foes in a neutral venue in Baku shouldn’t hold any fears for them here. Emery seemed reluctant to play Aubameyang and Lacazette together in the early stages of the season, but they have subsequently been allowed to forge a lethal strike partnership.
Like Chelsea, the Gunners also cruised through the pool stage with five wins and a draw, but they then had to survive a couple of scares in the knockout rounds. Arsenal had to overcome first-leg deficits against both BATE Borisov and Rennes, before really clicking into top gear from the quarter-finals onwards. Emery’s men beat a high-class Napoli side 3-0 on aggregate and then enjoyed impressive 3-1 and 4-2 victories versus Valencia, with Aubameyang and Lacazette sharing their last eight goals.
Few teams come away from big matches at the Mestalla with anything to show for their efforts, but Arsenal were awesome in tearing apart Emery’s former club. The manager hailed his front pair as “amazing” after that display, also praising their willingness to work hard when Valencia had the ball.
Emery added: “I think we showed everybody our character, and also our capacity to be together and struggle in some moments defensively, but also having good moments in attack. “Against Valencia, not one team this year has scored four goals against them. Only one time, against Atletico Madrid, have they conceded three goals and we did that last week. “It’s a very good team, a difficult team, and we showed we can do that.”
Emery has the experience of leading Sevilla to a hat-trick of Europa League triumphs, while Arsenal can also take heart from a 2-0 defeat of Chelsea at Emirates Stadium in mid-January.
Aaron Ramsey will not have the chance to sign off in style, with the Juventus-bound midfielder ruled out with a thigh injury.
Hector Bellerin (knee), Rob Holding (knee), Danny Welbeck (ankle) and Denis Suarez (groin) are all out as well.
There is better news for Gunners fans with Petr Cech fit for the last game of his professional career – a fitting end for the goalkeeper, considering it comes against his former club.
Chelsea and Arsenal make the journey east from London to Baku’s Olympic Stadium, where they have both previously won against local champions Qarabağ, to contest the first major European club competition final between two English clubs in 11 years, and only the third in UEFA history.
• It is the third UEFA Europa League final between clubs from the same nation, the first having brought Portugal’s Porto a 1-0 win in Dublin against Braga in 2011 before Atlético Madrid defeated Athletic Club 3-0 in an all-Spanish encounter in Bucharest 12 months later.
• Chelsea are unbeaten in their 14 UEFA Europa League matches this term (W11 D3). They dominated Group L in the autumn before eliminating Malmö, Dynamo Kyiv, Slavia Praha and, on penalties, Eintracht Frankfurt to reach the final.
• Arsenal arrive in Azerbaijan on a five-match winning run in the competition. They cruised through to the knockout phase from Group E, dropping just two points and qualifying with two games to spare, but they had a scare in both the round of 32 and round of 16 against BATE Borisov and Rennes respectively before winning home and away in both the quarter-final against Napoli and the semi-final against Valencia.
• While Chelsea have already secured a berth in the 2019/20 UEFA Champions League group stage by finishing third in the Premier League, Arsenal’s fifth-place finish means they will qualify for next season’s UEFA Champions League only with victory in Baku.
Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
It is difficult to separate the sides heading into the final, though Chelsea’s strong run-in, coupled with Arsenal’s collapse in League form, should make the Blues slight favourites.
While Arsenal’s front line is a match for anyone, their defence has struggled time and again this season – and that will give Sarri’s side the edge if Hazard is anywhere near his best form.
Emery is a strong European tactician, but the Gunners’ end-of-season slump means he needs a number of players to regain form against a Chelsea side who found their stride at the perfect time.