|TIP: Arsenal to win||21/10||Betway|
When UEFA chose Baku as the host city for this year’s Europa League final back in 2017, they probably envisaged a few grumblings about distance and infrastructure in the likely event that at least one of the participants was from the west of the continent. There have indeed been many understandable complaints from supporters of both Chelsea and Arsenal, but the most controversial aspect of the choice of venue surrounds the ineligibility of Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
As an Armenian national, Mkhitaryan was told by the Azerbaijani authorities that they would not be able to guarantee his safety should he travel to the country. As such, the attacking midfielder will play no part in the final of a competition in which he has already made 11 appearances this season. There has been hopeful talk of a boycott by some supporters and the media, but the window for such a move has surely now closed. The showpiece event will thus go ahead as planned, although it has undeniably been tarnished and Arsenal - who the best bookies have priced as underdogs - can legitimately claim that they have been disadvantaged through no fault of their own.
The Gunners’ failure to finish in the top four in the Premier League could actually work in their favour here, though. It was, in truth, a dismal collapse that saw them drop out of the Champions League qualification spots, with avoidable losses to Crystal Palace, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City ultimately proving costly. Arsenal were two points clear of the chasing pack after beating Newcastle United 2-0 with seven games left to play, while they also had the easiest run-in of the four teams competing for the two remaining places behind Manchester City and Liverpool. The Europa League should have been a bonus, but now it is must-win if Arsenal want to be competing at the highest level next term.
Gunners Champions League Motivation
That added motivation could help get them over the line against Chelsea, who have already booked their spot in the Champions League by finishing third in the Premier League. That top-flight performance, together with their qualification for two cup finals, points to a successful first season at Stamford Bridge for Maurizio Sarri, but this does not seem like a relationship which is built for the long haul with bookies already pricing up odds for the next Chelsea manager.
The Italian responded to the suggestion that he has to win on Wednesday to save his job by stating that the club should sack him now if a judgment of such magnitude comes down to 90 minutes of action. Yet the Chelsea hierarchy may have already made up their minds, and given the degree to which the majority of match-going fans are against the former Napoli boss, a parting of the ways looks probable.
One man who is almost certainly on the way out is Eden Hazard, one of the world’s best players and someone who has the ability to change a game with a moment of magic. Chelsea have been reliant on such interventions for much of this season, with goals in short supply elsewhere and the team’s collective play often uninspiring. Hazard has tormented Arsenal in the past and will relish facing a defence who have folded under pressure from much less talented opponents, but whether his individual brilliance will be enough remains to be seen.
Arsenal will draw inspiration from their coach more than any player, with Unai Emery having won this competition three times with Sevilla. The Spaniard’s propensity to chop and change systems and personnel between games means his current side still lacks a clear identity, but in a one-off game such as this, Emery’s tactical nous could pay dividends. The ex-Paris Saint-Germain boss will have no left no stone unturned in preparation for this match, and although even the smartest football minds on the planet would struggle to devise a strategy capable of stopping Hazard when he is in full flow, Arsenal fans can be confident that their manager has a plan of some sort up his sleeve.
A clean sheet will probably be beyond Arsenal, particularly as it took them until an unconvincing 1-0 victory over 10-man Watford in April to record their first shut-out of the Premier League campaign away from the Emirates Stadium. Nevertheless, their own attacking quality will no doubt cause problems for a Chelsea team who will be missing N’Golo Kante, and the fact that there is more at stake for the Gunners should also work in their favour. Back north London to get the better of west London in Azerbaijan.