BAKU (Azerbaijan), May 29 — Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s Arsenal teammates stated their determination to win today’s Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku for the absent Armenian star, as Gunners boss Unai Emery told his team to focus on winning silverware rather than worrying about a possible return to the Champions League.
The build-up to this London derby European final has been marred by Mkhitaryan’s decision not to travel for the game because of fears over his safety due to an ongoing political dispute between his home country and neighbouring Azerbaijan.
He had already skipped Arsenal’s trip to the Azeri capital for a group game against Qarabag last October.
“He is very important for us, on the pitch and off the pitch, and we want to give him as well a trophy tomorrow,” said Granit Xhaka, the Swiss midfielder.
Greek defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who previously played with Mkhitaryan at Borussia Dortmund before moving to England last year, posted a picture on Twitter earlier this week of the two in training under the caption “Missing you bro”.
“We were five or six years together so I know him very well, we are very good friends. We have to play for him and for the players who are injured and if we win this game it is also for them,” he said at yesterday’s pre-match press conference.
It remains to be seen if Mkhitaryan’s absence will handicap Arsenal on the field at the Baku Olympic Stadium, as the Gunners prepare for a huge twin challenge.
They are seeking their first European trophy in 25 years and also have to win in order to reach the Champions League next season after missing out on a top-four place in the Premier League. In contrast, Chelsea have already secured a return to Europe’s top table.
“We have two targets — the first and most important is to win a title,” said Emery, who has already won this competition three times with Sevilla.
“Each title is very important for a team like Arsenal or Chelsea, in England and also in Europe.”
Cech to start?
Emery’s own desire to win this competition for a fourth time in six years is understandable, but for Arsenal there is also a need — financially and in terms of prestige — to return to the Champions League after a two-season absence.
“For a club like Arsenal we have to be in the Champions League. It’s an amazing and important game tomorrow because we want to give us, the fans and the club the Champions League back,” said Xhaka.
“I think if you see the season, maybe we deserved to be there in the top four. But this is a big game, a final, we can take a trophy and we can go back to the Champions League.”
Meanwhile, Emery refused to be drawn on whether Petr Cech would start in his final game for the club before retiring.
The veteran goalkeeper has been strongly linked with a return to Chelsea, his old club, in an upstairs capacity, which could have a role in Emery’s decision whether or not to play the 37 year-old here.
Cech has played most European games this season, while the German Bernd Leno has been the first choice in the Premier League.
“I can speak about Petr Cech a lot, but above all he’s a great man, a great professional,” said Emery.
“It is going to be his last match tomorrow because he will finish his career and I want to do something important with him, playing or not playing.” — AFP