Arsenal vs. Chelsea
Date: Wednesday, May 29
Venue: Olympic Stadium
Location: Baku, Azerbaijan
Time/TV: 3:00 p.m. ET, TNT
Chelsea and Arsenal are separated by just nine miles, but both sides and the hardiest of their fans have undertaken the 2,500 mile trip to Baku, Azerbaijan, on the shores of the Caspian Sea, for the Europa League final on Wednesday.
Rarely has a European final approached with such discontent surrounding both teams.
First, there is the issue of Baku hosting the final. The choice has resulted in absurdly expensive and convoluted journeys for fans from England to make. Both sides have failed to sell their ticket allocation. Direct flights from London to Baku went over $1,000 months ago.
Second, there is the fact that neither team has had a particularly satisfying season. For Chelsea, another European trophy combined with a top three finish is, on paper, a good first season for Maurizio Sarri, but performances have been erratic and there are serious questions about the club’s long and short-term directions.
Arsenal have certainly been worse than Chelsea on the pitch, and have their two star strikers, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, to thank for finishing anywhere near the top four. They also declined horribly at the end of the season, sacrificing their top four place to Chelsea and Tottenham.
In short, both sets of fans are pessimistic. Chelsea are 29/20 to win the game in 90 minutes with Arsenal 21/20. The Blues are 8/11 to lift the trophy; the Gunners 11/10. At those prices, I believe Chelsea fans have more reasons to be pessmistic.
Chelsea’s squad is very thin for this match. Callum Hudson-Odoi’s season is over, as is Antonio Rudiger’s. Chelsea have decent deputies for both, but the injury to Ruben Loftus-Cheek in a friendly in Boston must stand as one of the most frustrating things to have happened to Chelsea this year. Even worse, there are serious questions over the fitness of N’Golo Kante, who is so pivotal to Chelsea’s midfield.
In big matches Maurizio Sarri has tended to play Eden Hazard as a false nine, not trusting either Olivier Giroud or Gonzalo Higuain. This, I believe, would be a mistake. Arsenal’s defence is poor, and Hazard would be wasted in that position in what will probably be his last match in a Chelsea shirt.
This may also be Sarri’s last match. There are strong rumours that Juventus want him to replace Massimiliano Allegri. Couple that with Chelsea’s upcoming transfer ban and uncertainty is swirling around Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea beat Arsenal 3-2 at home in August, and Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 in January. That 2-0 win was one of Arsenal’s best performances of the season, with first half goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscielny sealing an easy win against a lacklustre Chelsea side.
There are huge question marks over Arsenal, of course. They had and conceded the 11th most shots in the league, indicating that it was only their finishers and their goalkeepers who kept them away from mid-table. By Arsenal’s standards, this team is desperately low on quality and need signings almost everywhere if they are to compete with the best teams in the league.
However they need this more than Chelsea, who have already guaranteed Champions League football next season by virtue of finishing third.
In what could be a very even game, Arsenal’s superior finishing could be the difference. Aubameyang scored a hat-trick in Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Valencia in the second leg of their semi-final, and at 15/4 he looks the best value to score first.
Tip: Arsenal to win the trophy at 11/10
Prediction: Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea