By Peter Auf der Heyde
As Arsenal and Chelsea head toward Baku for Wednesday’s Europa League final London will become only the second city in the history of European club competitions to provide both finalists.
Madrid managed it twice with Real and Atletico in 2014 and 2016, but now it is London’s turn.
Arsenal coach Unai Emery, who has won the competition thrice with Sevilla, has a big decision to make over whom to play in goals. Petr Cech, who has been the club’s cup goalkeeper, has been linked with a move to Chelsea as a technical director in summer.
Some pundits have suggested that Emery should, under the circumstances, opt to give first choice keeper Bernd Leno the chance to shine in Baku.
Emery will definitely be without attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who will not be part of the Gunners’ squad for the match in the Olympic Stadium in the Azerbaijani capital.
Mkhitaryan comes from Armenia – a country with which Azerbaijan has no diplomatic relations. The two are also involved in an ongoing conflict over a disputed region within Azerbaijani borders.
Like his Arsenal counterpart, Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri will be without some of his players.
The Blues played a charity match in the USA at the end of the Premier League season and Ruben Loftus-Cheek suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 3-0 victory against the New England Revolution.
Sarri, who was critical of the timing of the friendly, said that it was a pity to not be able to pick Loftus-Cheek. “In Boston the pitch was not very good, but with an injury like that there isn’t only one reason, there are probably a lot of reasons. We cannot say it was only the pitch.”
Also missing from the Chelsea line-up is defender Antonio Rüdiger and Callum Hudson-Odoi, while a question mark hangs over N’Golo Kante.
“Of course we are trying to recover Kante. He has started participating in some parts of training, so we are optimistic he will be able to play the final.
“Usually against Arsenal it’s an open match. They have two very dangerous strikers, Lacazette and Aubameyang. They are very dangerous as a team in the offensive phase. They are aggressive and able to press well in the opposition half, so it’s not easy to play against them. Their coach worked very well, so a difficult match.”
Unlike Arsenal, Chelsea have already qualified for next season’s Champions League, but a win on Wednesday will see the Gunners become the fifth English team in the lucrative competition next season.
Emery said he was aware of the importance of the competition. “We want to feel a special moment, and this is a special moment. We want to enjoy it, whether it’s very far or not for the supporters. The match is the same importance.
“I think it’s very special in two ways. One is because it’s a derby we are going to play away but we are going to feel the same. We need to battle against them. We finished behind them in the Premier League, and last year they were in front of us.
“Our ambition is to reduce the difference with them in all the competitions. Our first possibility, our challenge is in this final.”
The match will be televised live and exclusively on the StarTimes World Football channel throughout Africa, ensuring African football fans yet another footballing highlight.
Peter Auf der Heyde
Peter Auf der Heyde is an award-winning football journalist and author, who covers the big European leagues. As a South African by birth, he is particularly interested in the African connection within European football and has covered 12 consecutive Africa Cup of Nations tournaments live. Formerly head of sport at the English service of the German Press Association, he is one of the leading Bundesliga experts.
Auf der Heyde played professionally for Bosmont Chelsea in the South African top flight and now spends his time migrating between South Africa, Germany and the UK.
By Peter Auf der Heyde