Arsenal fans in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Tuesday. Reuters/Maxim Shemetov
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 on Wednesday.
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 (1900GMT), 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 on Tuesday.
“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.
“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.
Sarri storms off
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.
Despite the pressure, Emery appeared calm ahead of the game. In contrast, his opposite number Maurizio Sarri looked anything but as he stormed off the pitch at the Olympic Stadium during a training session on Tuesday evening that was open to the media.
Television cameras caught the Italian angrily throwing away his baseball cap as he headed for the tunnel shortly after a moment of friction between David Luiz and Gonzalo Higuain.
Sarri, who has been heavily linked with a move to Juventus, had earlier said winning the final would turn a “very good season” into a “wonderful” one.
Night of farewells?
He is still to win a major trophy, but he has already 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 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.
“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.
Pedro Rodriguez starred as Chelsea withstood a spirited Slavia Prague fightback in a wild 4-3 victory to qualify for the Europa League semi-finals on Thursday, while Arsenal knocked out Napoli after an assured display in Italy.
Arsenal will play Chelsea in the Europa League final after Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored the hat-trick that ended Valencia’s hopes of another dramatic European comeback on Thursday. Chelsea entered the Europa League final after scraping past Eintracht Frankfurt 4-3 on penalties following a 1-1 semi-final, second leg draw on Thursday.
Olivier Giroud is relishing the prospect of beating his old Arsenal team-mates when he lines up for Chelsea in the Europa League final in Baku on May 29. The 32-year-old French World Cup winner’s move across London 18 months ago has failed to deliver the regular first team football
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