Chelsea and Arsenal will lock horns against each other on Wednesday night in an all-English UEFA Europa League final at the Baku Olympic Stadium.
The 2018-19 season has been memorable for Premier League sides in Europe. Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are set to clash in the UEFA Champions League final this weekend, but before that there is the small matter of a London derby taking place in Azerbaijan, as Chelsea and Arsenal will battle it out in the final of the UEFA Europa League on Wednesday.
Chelsea will be looking to lift the trophy for the second time, having won it back in 2012-13. It has been a fairly solid campaign for the Blues, as they finished third in the Premier League and made it to the Carabao Cup final. And the Europa League offers them to end the season on a high with a trophy, which would be the first-ever silverware of manager Maurizio Sarri’s career.
Chelsea’s pathway to the final has been pretty straightforward, as they topped Group L, before making light work of the likes of Malmo, Dynamo Kyiv and Slavia Praha in the knockout rounds. They were made to work hard by Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final, but the Blues ultimately prevailed via penalty shootouts and booked their place in the final.
While Chelsea’s participation in next season’s Champions League is confirmed, Arsenal have their hopes of featuring in Europe’s premier footballing competition pinned on the upcoming contest in Baku. The Gunners finished fifth in the Premier League in Unai Emery’s debut campaign as manager and will have to win the Europa League to enter the Champions League next season.
Arsenal topped their group with great ease, but were made to work hard in the knockout stages as they had to overcome first leg deficits against BATE Borisov and Rennes. However, they managed to find their mojo in the subsequent stages, beating Napoli and Valencia by heavy margins in the quarter-final and semi-final, respectively to set up a derby contest in Baku.
Both teams have beaten each other once in the 2018-19 campaign. And ahead of their third and most important meeting of the season, we at The Hard Tackle take a closer look at the blockbuster encounter coming our way on Wednesday.
Team News & Tactics
In what is a huge blow for Chelsea, midfield mainstay N’Golo Kante is likely to miss out on the final. The Frenchman had recently recovered from a hamstring problem, but suffered a knee injury during training on Saturday. While he has travelled with the squad to Baku, his involvement remains a major doubt.
Academy graduates Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek are guaranteed absentees for Maurizio Sarri’s side, as is German international Antonio Rudiger. The Italian has looked to rotate his troops for the Europa League this season, but that will not be the case in Baku, with all the regulars set to start.
In goal, there is no looking past Kepa Arrizabalaga, who has had quite an impressive debut campaign in England. The backline shielding him pretty much picks itself, with Cesar Azpilicueta and Emerson Palmieri starting out as full-backs, while David Luiz pairs up with Andreas Christensen at the heart of the defence.
Midfield linchpin Jorginho is another guaranteed starter for Chelsea. But, with Loftus-Cheek ruled out and Kante unfit, Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic are set to complete the midfield trifecta for the Blues against their London rivals. Eden Hazard is a surefire starter on the left flank, while Willian is expected to pip Pedro to a starting berth on the opposite side.
The big conundrum for Sarri though, will be choosing his striker. On one hand there is Olivier Giroud, who is the leading goalscorer in the Europa League and on the other hand, there is Gonzalo Higuain, who hasn’t been in the best of form, but enjoys the manager’s trust. The former should get the nod though, owing to his contributions in Chelsea making it to the final.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Luiz, Emerson; Kovacic, Jorginho, Barkley; Willian, Giroud, Hazard
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has not travelled with the squad due to fears of his safety owing to the political tensions between Azerbaijan and his homeland Armenia. Aaron Ramsey has played his last game for the Gunners and will not be involved on Wednesday, while Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin and Denis Suarez are also out.
Konstantinos Mavropanos is also a doubt for the fixture, but the Gunners have been boosted by the return to full fitness of exit-bound striker Danny Welbeck. Emery is likely to set his team up with a three-man backline against Chelsea, but the biggest question will be who gets to start in goal.
Veteran stopper Petr Cech, who will be retiring at the end of the season, has been Arsenal’s preferred choice in Europa League. And a chance to end his career against his former club would be the perfect way for him to bow out. However, given the stature of the contest, Emery might go in with his first-choice goalkeeper Bernd Leno ahead of the 37-year-old.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal will form the three-man backline for the Gunners, with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac operating as the wing-backs. Lucas Torreira is a certain starter in the middle of the park and is likely to be partnered by Granit Xhaka ahead of the inexperienced Matteo Guendouzi.
Mesut Ozil is likely to get the nod as the lone playmaker for Arsenal, with the lethal strike partnership of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spearheading the attack against Chelsea.
Probable Lineup (3-4-1-2): Leno; Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal; Maitland-Niles, Torreira, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ozil; Lacazette, Aubameyang
- The contest between Arsenal and Chelsea is only the second all-English final in the UEFA Cup/Europa League, with the previous one being played between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves back in 1972.
- Wednesday’s contest will be the sixth time both Arsenal and Chelsea are playing in the final of a major UEFA competition. Liverpool (14) and Manchester United (7) are the only English clubs to have made it to a final in Europe on more occasions.
- Arsenal and Chelsea have clashed against each other on 197 occasions previously, with the North Londoners enjoying the upper hand in the tie, having won 77 matches in comparison to the West Londoners’ 63 victories.
- The last time these two sides met in European competition was in the 2003-04 UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Chelsea got the better of Arsenal back then, beating them 3-2 on aggregate.
- Arsenal have lost four of their five major European finals, whereas Chelsea have won four of their five major European finals (2 Cup Winners’ Cup, 1 Champions League, 1 Europa League).
Player to Watch
The Belgian wing wizard has had a sensational 2018-19 campaign for Chelsea, but it could very well prove to be his final one with the Premier League giants, as he is poised to join Real Madrid in the summer. Hazard, who won the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year award, has netted 19 goals and set up 16 more in 51 matches across all competitions this season.
However, the 28-year-old is yet to open his goalscoring account in the Europa League, having mostly been used as a substitute, with Maurizio Sarri opting to rotate his troops in the competition. Wednesday’s match provides him with the opportunity to set that right and fire his team to a trophy to bring his spell with the Blues to an end on a high.
Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal
There is so much at stake for both teams heading into the monumental clash in Baku. For Chelsea, it offers a chance to end the season with silverware, which would be a huge milestone in manager Maurizio Sarri’s career, given that he has never won a trophy till date. The fact that it could be the Italian’s final match in-charge, amid links to Juventus, adds more weight to the contest.
Arsenal have a lot riding on the final too, as a win would guarantee them a place in next season’s Champions League, which would in turn boost their transfer budget and help them recruit big name players. Moreover, should they go on to win, it will be the Gunners’ first European silverware since their 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph against Parma.
Sarri will be in his first major European final, while Emery is a proven winner in the Europa League, having lifted the trophy thrice with Sevilla. Chelsea enter the game with a depleted squad and dodgy form, whereas Arsenal have an almost complete squad and have been in better nick compared to their opponents.
While the Gunners have generally struggled away from home this season, they did manage to turn that around to some extent recently, and should they nullify Eden Hazard’s threat, they will have won half the battle. And hence, we at The Hard Tackle are backing Arsenal to come out on top at Baku and lift their first Europa League trophy.