BAKU, May 29 — The build-up to the Europa League final has been marred by the controversy surrounding Uefa’s choice of venue, but it is now time for the football to do the talking as familiar foes Chelsea and Arsenal prepare to do battle in the unfamiliar setting of Baku today.
Two and a half weeks after the Premier League season ended, here is a London derby exported almost 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometres) to Azerbaijan’s capital, by the Caspian Sea.
It is the first leg in a week of European finals dominated by England, with Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur contesting the Champions League showpiece in Madrid on Saturday.
However, there will not be much of an English atmosphere at the Baku Olympic Stadium when the match kicks off at 2300 local time (3am, Thursday Malaysia Time), with reportedly only around 6,000 tickets sold by the clubs in a ground which holds almost 70,000.
The distances and costs involved and the difficulty in getting to Baku have prevented more fans from travelling, while Arsenal are also handicapped by the absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
He decided not to travel because of fears over his safety due to an ongoing political dispute between Azerbaijan and his home country Armenia.
“It is not in my hands. They have their reason to play here and I must respect this decision,” said Arsenal coach Unai Emery yesterday.
“Yes I prefer to play with our supporters here. I’d prefer it if a lot of supporters from us and from Chelsea could come here from London, but it’s difficult.”
Emery’s players have promised to try to win the trophy for Mkhitaryan, and the stakes are certainly high for the Gunners.
After finishing fifth in the Premier League, two points behind Chelsea in third and one point behind Tottenham, Arsenal have to win to qualify for next season’s Champions League after two years away.
“For a club like Arsenal we have to be in the Champions League. It’s an amazing and important game because we want to give us, the fans and the club the Champions League back,” said midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Whether that in itself is more important than winning a European trophy is another matter, however.
Make or break for Emery
Arsenal have not been in a European final since 2006 and have not won a continental trophy since lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup 25 years ago.
In Emery, though, they have a coach who won this competition three years running with Sevilla.
“All teams’ first objective is to play to win a title — I think that is the first objective, and then there is also the fact that it helps you to achieve the Champions League,” Emery reasoned.
If this match will make or break Emery’s first season in charge, it is also crucial for Maurizio Sarri in determining how his debut campaign at Chelsea is assessed.
The Italian does not see it that way, though, amid talk it could be his swansong before a summer move to Juventus.
“I think we played a very good season. Of course if we are able to win the final the season will become wonderful,” said Sarri, who has never won a major trophy.
A game of farewells?
He has steered the Blues to a return to the Champions League and also took them to the League Cup final, where they lost on penalties to Manchester City.
The game could also be Eden Hazard’s last as a Chelsea player amid reports he will finally move on to Real Madrid.
It will definitely be the last game, however, for Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech, who will retire afterwards at the age of 37.
A Chelsea great who crossed London in 2015, he has been tipped for a return to Stamford Bridge in an upstairs capacity, which may be on Emery’s mind when it comes to picking his starting line-up.
“I can speak about Petr Cech a lot, but above all he’s a great man, a great professional,” Emery said. “I want to do something important, with him playing or not playing.”
Bernd Leno is the other option in goal, while Chelsea are sweating on the fitness of midfielder N’Golo Kante.
“Kante has a very little problem with his knee. The problem is the timing, but we are trying,” said Sarri. — AFP