What the Champions League can produce, so can its oft-overlooked cousin the Europa League.
We are not only getting an all-English final in Madrid on June 1, between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur but a few days later all the way across to Baku when London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea lock horns for the first piece of European silverware this season.
Both clubs, who have enjoyed similar but contrasting seasons, took different routes to get there. For one, it was straightforward, whilst the other had to suffer. Both semi-finals, nevertheless, were captivating.
Unlike in Europe’s premier club competition, we didn’t get any dramatic comebacks, but there was no shortage of goals (albeit the majority came in one tie) or drama. And with that being said, let’s have a quick look at the players who stood out and the ones who disappointed, as follows are three best and two worst.
Best – Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Near ever-present in Chelsea’s campaign, there’s a strong case that Loftus-Cheek is their Europa League MVP. Heading into the semi-finals he bagged three goals and created a further two in nine appearances. And, though, a place in Maurizio Sarri’s Premier League team is far from guaranteed he’s got the best of his opportunities in Europe thus leading many to champion a regular starting berth in the Blues midfielder regardless of competition – and the argument is rather compelling.
Loftus-Cheek, who can be classified as a modern midfielder, totally imposed himself on Eintracht Frankfurt in both legs. Firstly, in Germany, he completed 39 of his 45 attempted passes while producing nine take-ons, equalling the most in a European knockout game this season – a feat he shares with a certain Lionel Messi. He built on his assist for Pedro with a goal at Stamford Bridge, which brought up his 10th for the season in all competitions, it’s a safe bet to assume he’ll be starting in Baku on May 29.
Worst – Matteo Guendouzi
When opportunity knocks, open the door. It’s fair to say Matteo Guendouzi wasn’t listening. There’s a good player in there somewhere, but to play for a club of Arsenal’s ilk you must be prepared regardless of age. It’s not like Guendouzi has enjoyed a bit-part role under Unai Emery, he’s often played a prominent part, starting half of their Europa League games this season. However, their first leg against Valencia seemingly passed him by.
Guendouzi, one of Emery’s first signings when he succeeded legendary Gunners boss Arsene Wenger last summer, lasted 58 minutes. His inclusion in their starting lineup wasn’t exactly met with enthusiasm and those who harboured concerns were proven correct. He came in for the tenacious Lucas Torreira and though Arsenal were in front at half-time they missed the Uruguayan’s bite. Emery corrected his error in the second half and beginning of the second leg and they’ve not looked back.
Best – Luka Jovic
In defeat, his name has risen. To say Luka Jovic’s future is bright is an understatement. He wasn’t able to drag Eintracht Frankfurt to a historic Europa League final, which no one could have imagined last summer, but the Serb is a winner in every sense of the word. His goals made their impossible dream become a reality, like Ajax in the Champions League, the Bundesliga outfit has been Europe’s surprise package.
Eintracht were ultimately eliminated by Chelsea on penalties; across both 1-1 draws Jovic was there. In the process, his stock continued to rise. For months now Jovic’s name has been associated with both Real Madrid and Barcelona — despite making his loan move from Benfica permanent it remains to be seen whether he will be an Eagle next season.
Worst – Ezequiel Garay
Sometimes experience doesn’t count. Valencia will be licking their wounds after two humbling losses at the hands of former boss Emery who is now chasing a fourth Europa League title. At the heart of their defence, which conceded seven goals across both matches, was Ezequiel Garay and more damning for him was the fact in either leg he failed to make a successful tackle — the only Valencian defender, who played both legs, to achieve that unwanted distinction.
Garay, of course, wasn’t personally responsible for their crushing defeats – it was a collective effort (or lack of) – but given his battle hardness, those around him including manager Marcelino would have expected him to lead his teammates by their hand. That never transpired, but their season isn’t over, there’s now a Copa del Rey final date on May 25 with Barcelona who themselves are getting to grip with their own European elimination to a Premier League side.
Best – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
No one ever doubted Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s quality, but cometh the hour, cometh the man. Arsenal’s infectious marksman is arguably among Europe’s elite. He’s been the business domestically, bagging 20 goals across 35 Premier League outings, and the same could be said playing under the lights. The former Juventus president Gianni Agnelli nicknamed Polish midfielder Zbigniew Boniek Bello di notte (“Beauty at night”) due to his excellent performances in European club matches, if he continues in this vein we might have to give Aubameyang a similar moniker.
When it mattered he stepped up. A goal plus assist against Valencia in the first leg at home was followed by a breathless hat-trick at the Mestalla. Now, the Gabonese forward is the first to declare there’s no ‘I’ in team, and he’d be right. Each one of his goals was created by a different player: Alexandre Lacazette, who he’s forged a deadly strike partnership with, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.