The wait is almost over. It’s been 19 days since Arsenal booked their date with Chelsea in the Europa League Final. 16 days since the Gunners played their last match. We’ve heard about the geopolitical tensions that prevented Henrikh Mkhitaryan from joining the team in Baku, the difficult travel to Azerbaijan, the ticketing issues, the inaccessibility of the stadium for disabled supporters, and even fans getting harassed by police for wearing Mkhi kits.
But in 24 hours time, when that opening whistle blows, all of that (hopefully) takes a back seat. For 90 minutes, we can all live and die with every touch of the ball. Cup finals are special. Whether you are watching at work on your computer, at home on your couch, in a bar with a crowd of supporters, or wherever, there will be an extra something in the room.
Is tomorrow’s match the biggest in club history? Maybe, maybe not. In 130 years of existence, Arsenal have played in some big ones - the ‘06 Champions League Final and the ‘89 title-deciding match against Liverpool jump to mind as competitors for that mantle. Both of those matches were for a more prestigious title, but I don’t think either of them had (or would have had, pour some out for Jens Lehmann) the same direct effect on the short- and long-term future of the club that a win tomorrow would. A return to the Champions League and its attendant revenues and attractiveness to potential transfers would be a massive boost.
Also, Wednesday’s match is for a European trophy. That’s pretty sweet. The Gunners have managed that feat only once in club history, the ‘94 Cup Winners’ Cup. Well, technically they’ve done it twice: Arsenal won the ‘70 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup but UEFA doesn’t consider it part of a club’s European record and until 15 minutes ago, I had never heard of it so, yeah. Winning a European competition is A Big Deal.
Arsenal were handed good news on the injury front last week - Danny Welbeck traveled with the team and looks primed to make the matchday roster. He won’t start, but if the Gunners need a spark from the bench, Welbeck has shown he has a flair for the dramatic. As previously mentioned, Henrikh Mkhitaryan did not travel with the team because of the conflict between Azerbaijan and his native Armenia. Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin, and Rob Holding remain out with injuries.
Unai Emery has yet to announce his starting keeper. Petr Čech played in the Europa League all season. But last week, in what was almost certainly a piece of gamesmanship from the Chelsea front office, it “leaked” to the media that Čech would be taking a job at Stamford Bridge this summer. To his credit, Čech refuted the rumors. I have no question about his commitment and desire to win the match, and it’s not as if there is much of a difference in quality between him and Bernd Leno anyway.
Chelsea have been beset by injuries in their preparations for Wednesday’s match. N’Golo Kanté is doubtful to play after picking up a knee injury in training last week. Midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek ruptured his Achilles in a friendly match against the New England Revolution in early May. Defender Antonio Rudiger (torn meniscus) and winger Callum Hudson-Odoi (ruptured Achilles) are both out long-term.
VAR will be up and running for Wednesday’s match despite not being used in the Europa League all season. It will be interesting to see how players not accustomed to the system being in use adjust or don’t adjust their play. My bet: there will be a VAR-awarded penalty for at least one of the sides.
Arsenal and Chelsea split their two Premier League matches this season, with both clubs winning on their home ground — the Blues bested the Gunners 3-2 in August, Arsenal won 2-0 in January. Chelsea finished two points ahead of Arsenal in the table, but neither club was all that impressive in the run-in. There isn’t much to differentiate the two sides.
The biggest difference, perhaps, is in managerial experience. Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri, despite an impressive career, has yet to win a major trophy. Unai Emery has won the Europa League three times. According to Arsenal top brass, his record of success in the EL was a large factor in his getting the job at the Emirates.
It’s time for Unai to earn his stripes.
WHAT: Arsenal vs. Chelsea - Europa League Final
WHERE: Olympic Stadium, Baku, Azerbaijan
WHEN: Wednesday, May 29th 12 PM PT | 3 PM ET | 8 PM BT | 11 PM (!!!) local time in Baku
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Enjoy the match. Come on you Gunners.