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UEFA Europa League Final Preview and Live Chat

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What should we expect from Wednesday’s battle between storied EPL sides Arsenal and Chelsea for a European trophy? Be sure to come back and join in the live chat, too!

Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri - Arsenal FC v Chelsea FC - Europa League Final
The Europa League final marks an important end of the first season for Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri in charge of their new clubs.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

For Premier League fans, the UEFA Europa League Final marks the midpoint of a beautiful EPL parade. It started with the FA Cup final where Manchester City dispatched Watford, but of course it’s never a surprise seeing two Premier League teams cap that competition. Adding to that by having a pair of Premiership sides compete for the Europa League trophy and then another all-English battle for the Champions League title is simply a remarkable showcase of six different teams from what many consider the finest league in the world.

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WHAT IS AT STAKE?

The sides were apart by only two points in the EPL, but that marked a separation of two very vital places in the table. As such, the stakes for this game are uneven. With Chelsea’s 3rd-place finish having assured next season’s Champions League qualification already, the Blues can afford to be fairly loose. A trophy would be nice, very nice, but it’s not do-or-die by any means.

But by finishing 5th — just outside of the top four — Arsenal has absolutely everything to play for now — both the silver and the lucrative Champions League entry. An Arsenal victory in Europa League would mean five Premier League teams in next season’s Champions League, putting a another stamp on the EPL exhibition playing out across Europe these days.

The last time the Gunners appeared in UCL was 2016-17, which means that if they lose this game, they will miss out for a third straight season. In today’s world footballing landscape, it’s difficult to keep top players — highlighted by Aaron Ramsey’s departure to Juventus — and recruit big new stars without Champions League as a carrot (and its big money as fuel for the wage bill). Comparatively, Europa League seems more like cabbage soup. But if you win Europa League to get to Champions League, that’s some tasty cheddar!

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A REFERENDUM ON NEW MANAGERS

A fascinating angle, of course, is that both teams feature managers at the end of their first season after taking over for skippers who had previously won EPL titles and other hardware before falling on tough times. This championship game result will be the final exam influencing how we grade the performances of Unai Emery and Maurizio Sarri this season, along with how we feel about the direction and momentum of Arsenal and Chelsea heading into next campaign.

Both of the new managers improved their team’s position in the table: Chelsea vaulted over Tottenham and Manchester United to go from 5th to 3rd, and Arsenal jumped over the Red Devils to climb from 6th to 5th.

However, for both teams, the actual production hardly changed at all. Amazingly, both the offensive and defensive numbers stayed basically the same as they were in the prior season under the former managers. The goal differential was identical for Chelsea from 2017-18 to 2018-19, and for Arsenal it was slightly worse, reducing by one goal.

Arsenal & Chelsea, 2018-19 w/ New Managers vs. 2017-18

TEAM/MANAGER/RESULT ARSENAL 2017-18 (WENGER) ARSENAL 2018-19 (EMERY) CHELSEA 2017-18 (CONTE) CHELSEA 2018-19 (SARRI)
TEAM/MANAGER/RESULT ARSENAL 2017-18 (WENGER) ARSENAL 2018-19 (EMERY) CHELSEA 2017-18 (CONTE) CHELSEA 2018-19 (SARRI)
EPL Place 6th 5th 5th 3rd
EPL Points 63 70 70 72
EPL Goals Scored 74 73 62 63
EPL Goals Conceded 51 51 38 39
EPL Goal Differential 23 22 24 24
European Competition Europa League Semifinals Europa League Finals Champions League Round of 16 Europa League Finals

In recent memory, Arsenal fans fondly remember Arsene Wenger winning the F.A. Cup in 2016-17, while Chelsea supporters joyously recall Antonio Conte winning the F.A. Cup in 2017-18 and the EPL title in 2016-17. (Wenger’s third and final EPL championship came in 2003-04.) The new-ish manager who comes away with this Europa League title will add an impressive chalice to the team trophy case, one that will shine an entirely new light on the perceived success of the replacement reign.

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RECENT FORM

Each team has endured a hiccup or two along the way to the Europa League finals, but at different points of the tournament. For Arsenal, it took two second leg comebacks following first leg defeats — over BATE Borisov in the Round of 32 and Rennes in the round of 16 — before progress became considerably more comfortable. The Blues, meanwhile, enjoyed smooth sailing all the way to their semifinal, which went to nail-biting penalty kicks after successive 1-1 draws against Eintracht Frankfurt. Chelsea actually came from behind thanks to the heroics of Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal.

The joke at the end of the Premier League season surrounding Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Manchester United was, “Do any of these teams actually want to finish in the top four?” Arsenal won only one of its final five games, taking just 4 points from a possible 15. A mere home draw with Brighton in the penultimate affair effectively sealed the team’s fate outside the top four, but losses at Leicester, at Wolves, and home to Crystal Palace did the most damage. Meanwhile, Chelsea managed only one win in the final five game-weeks, but also lost just once in that time, taking 6 points from 15 thanks to three draws. Thus neither team comes into the final in particularly strong form.

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WHERE IS THE FINAL TAKING PLACE?

Here’s a list of cosmopolitan European cities where the past 10 Europa League finals have been held: Lyon (France), Stockholm (Sweden), Basel (Switzerland), Warsaw (Poland), Turin (Italy), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Bucharest (Romania), Dublin (Ireland), Hamburg (Germany), and Istanbul (Turkey).

And where is this contest taking place? Olympic Stadium at Baku (Azerbaijan). I am sure that it is a lovely venue at a wonderful city from a charming country in a delightful time zone, but even so, it would strain credulity not to say that the locale stands out as a very bold and interesting choice... while also noting that others have not been nearly as kind with their verbiage.

For those of you watching the game on t.v. at home or at your local pub, you will apparently have plenty of company in the form of Arsenal and Chelsea fans, along with the sponsors (and their clientele). The seeming lack of enthusiasm for traveling from London and other more conventionally major European cities to Baku has led to the fear that tens of thousands of seats will be unfilled. [Source: Daily Mail.]

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INJURIES/SUSPENSIONS/OTHER ABSENCES

There are no suspensions to worry about, but neither team will have all of its preferred XI available.

CHELSEA: It has been a brutal time in the trainers’ room for Chelsea, as exciting attacking youngsters Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek along with central defender Antonio Rudiger have all suffered serious injuries recently, leaving them unavailable not only for this contest but also for a considerable time to come. After leaving the May 5 Watford game with injury, influential defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante has reportedly returned to training [as per Football London], which means that he will be expected to be available.

ARSENAL: Citing safety worries due to ethnic strife, the Gunners’ Armenian play-maker Henrikh Mkhitaryan won’t travel to Azerbaijan, the aforementioned neutral site of the final. Unfortunately, that has added another reason for aggrieved Arsenal fans — and even unbiased fans expecting to see both sides’ best ostensibly available players — to lament the choice of venue.

On top of that, attacking midfielder Aaron Ramsey, midfielder Denis Suarez, and defenders Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding remain unavailable due to injury. In better news, striker Danny Welbeck has returned to training following an extended injury absence, offering an impact offensive option from the bench.

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OTHER SUBPLOTS

Eden Hazard - Chelsea FC - Premier League
This may mark Eden Hazard’s farewell to Chelsea.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Chelsea superstar Eden Hazard has been rumored to be on his way out of London (and to Real Madrid) for a long time, and the chatter has grown absolutely deafening since the summer transfer window opened on May 16th. Blues’ fans will always hold a special place in their hearts for the mesmerizing talent who has played a major part in an impressive haul of hardware. A second Europa League title would certainly be a fitting way to say goodbye.

On top of that, the looming transfer ban hangs heavy over the Chelsea FC head office. Chelsea has been given a two-window ban that is set to cover summer 2019 and winter 2020. The team appealed to UEFA and was rejected, but it is not clear yet whether an appeal to CAS can delay the effects (and eventually mitigate them). If the team is not given any relief from the transfer ban, a trophy will prove all the more important for the fans as they bide their time in purgatory.

This game marks the swan song for retiring Arsenal keeper Petr Cech, who will hope to continue his role as preferred Europa League starter, as opposed to Premier League regular Bernd Leno. Cech has enjoyed an exemplary EPL career, but the bulk of his success came with Chelsea — where he played from 2004-05 through 2014-15, winning four EPL titles and three Golden Glove awards — before more lackluster times with the Gunners (although he did win his fourth and final Golden Glove trophy in 2015-16 with Arsenal). Interestingly, Cech leaves the pitch reportedly to become sporting director for his former club across town in London.

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WHERE SHOULD OUR ATTENTION TURN?

Airtight defenses under Arsene Wenger, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho were features earlier in the decade, as Arsenal and/or Chelsea led the league in clean sheets each season from 2013-14 through 2015-16. This season, though, the teams have not been so stingy, as Liverpool’s EPL-leading tally of 21 clean sheets was lightyears ahead of Chelsea’s 16 and Arsenal’s 8. As such, our eyes will naturally turn to the offensive end.

Valencia v Arsenal - UEFA Europa League Semi Final : Second Leg
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette combined for 35 goals and 13 assists in the EPL this season.
Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Aaron Ramsey and Henrick Mkhitaryan will be unfortunate absences, but the Gunners still boast plenty of attacking firepower led by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who tied for the EPL Golden Boot with 22 goals plus 5 assists. PEA is flanked by Alexandre Lacazette (13 goals, a team-leading 8 assists) and buttressed by the play-making talents of Mesut Ozil (5 goals, 2 assists), along with the contributions of defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka (4 goals, 2 assists), winger Alex Iwobi (3 goals, 6 assists), and wing back Sead Kolasinac (no goals, 5 assists).

Chelsea was more of a one-man team in the other-worldly form of Hazard, who not only led the Blues in goals (16) and assists (15), he was #1 in the entire league with his total of goals + assists (31). Pedro (8 goals, 2 assists) and Willian (3 goals, 6 assists) provided plenty of activity from the wing, while forward Gonzalo Higuaín added 5 goals after arriving on loan from Juventus (via AC Milan) in January. Meanwhile, Cesar Azpilicueta (1 goal, 5 assists), Marcos Alonso (2 goals, 4 assists) and David Luiz (3 goals, 2 assists) were extremely effective going forward from their defensive positions.

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HOW DID THE TEAMS FARE AGAINST EACH OTHER THIS SEASON?

Chelsea took the first meeting between the two sides, 3-2, at Stamford Bridge in August, thanks to early scores from Pedro and Alvaro Morata (remember him?) before Marcos Alonso broke the tie in the second half. Arsenal won the January rematch at the Emirates, 2-0, through goals by Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscienly.

What does all of this mean? That the Europa League final pitting a pair of pretty evenly-matched EPL teams could just as easily go either way!

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[Note: EPL statistics/results used in the article came via the official Premier League website.]

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What do you expect to happen in the Europa League final? Please share your thoughts in the comments, and be sure to join us as the action unfolds live!

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