Arsenal and Chelsea are heading for one of the biggest London derbies of all-time as they prepare to face off in the Europa League final.
These two sides were the best teams coming into the competition back in the Autumn and so, with some luck of the draw, it is quite fitting that they have ended up as the finalists. Both teams will want the glory of the trophy but for Arsenal the prize of qualifying for next season’s Champions League makes this match doubly important.
Arsenal and Chelsea know each other well from domestic competition, and of course they have met in Europe before. They clashed in the 2003/04 Champions League, with Chelsea prevailing over two legs. But this match will have a wholly different sensation as it is a European final. One game, in a neutral stadium, and the winner takes it all.
But what do we think will happen in Baku? We’ve rounded up what we feel are the five likeliest things.
1. Chelsea on the front-foot
In Chelsea’s other final this season, they played Manchester City in the EFL Cup. The Blues on that occasion ignored their usual Sarrismo style of play and went for a decidedly “Mourinho” approach of parking the bus and looking for a smash-and-grab win on the break through the brilliance of Eden Hazard.
Well, that didn’t work in the end. Moreover it was heavily predicated on N’Golo Kanté being, well, N’Golo Kanté. They finally unleashed the Frenchman in his natural role and he was excellent as a result. Now seeing as Kanté will likely miss the final against Arsenal with injury, this tactic becomes a lot less viable as without his defensive power, Chelsea would just be too permeable.
So expect the Blues to come out swinging. They won’t sit back and try to hit Arsenal on the break, but rather will try and impose their will on the game. A midfield of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley is likely. That’s a trio born to play expressive football, so expect them to do just that and really try to out-play Arsenal.
2. An unlikely scorer
When Unai Emery’s Sevilla won their first Europa League in 2014, well, it was 0-0 and they did so on penalties. But one of the scorers was Stephane Mbia, a defensive midfielder, rather than attacking mid Marko Marin. Then when they retained the title a year later, sure Carlos Bacca scored two of the goals but Sevilla’s first on the night came from defensive midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak. Finally, when they completed their threepeat by beating Liverpool in 2016, two of the goals came from right-back Coke (who scored in the 2014 shootout).
The pattern here is that when Unai Emery manages a side in a Europa League final, someone unlikely sticks the ball in the back of the net. Then you look back to Arsenal’s previous European final, when they played Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final, and see that their scorer that day was not Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg or Cesc Fabregas but Sol Campbell.
Taking these things into consideration, it seems fairly likely that one of Arsenal’s goals in Baku is going to be scored by someone no one was expecting to hit the back of the net. Perhaps Shkodran Mustafi could come up with the ultimate redemption moment? Or how about about Ainsley Maitland-Niles making a name for himself?
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3. Mkhitaryan’s absence will be felt
Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not play for Arsenal in the 2019 Europa League final. He’s not injured or suspended, but he is Armenian. The final is being held in Baku, which is in Azerbaijan. You may remember them from Atlético Madrid’s shirt sponsor a season or so ago.
Azerbaijan is a Eurasian country that shares a border with Armenia, and the two countries have been at odds with each other for decades now over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. There is constant violence as a result of this situation, and this means that an Armenian like Mkhitaryan simply isn’t safe in Azerbaijan. So he elected not to travel.
There is no doubt that his absence will be felt on the night. Whether that’s on the field – as Arsenal will now be lacking a game-changing talent to bring off the bench – or off the field, where the Gunners have been formally disallowed from showing support for their team-mate. But don’t be surprised if they sneak something in there or the commentators bring it up. All in all, it casts an ugly shadow over what should be a tremendously joyous event.
4. Hazard to say goodbye in style
Eden Hazard is almost certainly leaving Chelsea this summer. It’s an open secret. Real Madrid have been publicly courting him now, after years of little whispers about how much Zinedine Zidane and Florentino Perez admire the Belgian. Now with a huge hole on their left-wing and coming off a terrible season, they will turn to Hazard to save them.
That means the Europa League final will be Eden Hazard’s last match in a Chelsea shirt, and being the showman that he is, Hazard will want to go out in style. Hazard’s mesmeric dribbling has done Arsenal in before, and he’s bagged four goals in 18 games against the Gunners. Expect him to show his level and “earn” that Real Madrid move with a spectacular display in Baku, running Arsenal ragged and more than likely scoring to hit the 20-goals-a-season mark for the first time in his career.
5. Arsenal will win
Despite Chelsea’s bold approach and Eden Hazard’s desire to go out in style, the Blues will still find themselves coming up short on the night. Arsenal are going to win the 2019 Europa League, it’s as simple and clear-cut as that.
Why? Well partly because they’ve signed Unai Emery as head coach and winning the Europa League is what he does. The Spaniard was in charge of Sevilla for all three of their recent wins in the competition. In fact this season is the first time since 2015/16 that Emery was back in the competition, that he has made it all the way to the final should surprise no one. He’s gonna go all the way.
An addendum to this point is that Maurizio Sarri has won nothing his entire career. No trophies. Meanwhile Unai Emery has those three Europa Leagues as well as a domestic treble with PSG. He knows how to negotiate those tense and tight moments, he knows how to win.
The final reason is an issue of need. Chelsea finished third in the Premier League this season, they will be playing Champions League football next season no matter what happens. They could lose 10-0 in Baku and Eden Hazard could take a swing at Roman Abramovich and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to Chelsea’s medium and long-term sporting health.
But Arsenal? They finished fifth. If they don’t win the Europa League this season then they’ll be back in it next season. But if they capture the trophy then they get to ascend to the promised land of the Champions League, which is exactly where they want to be. So the Arsenal players will have a need to win, rather than a want to win. And in moments of great strengths, need always beats want.