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Baku decider will rest on a knife-edge for Chelsea and Arsenal

 

Big hitters: Maurizio Sarri storms off after a training bust-up
Big hitters: Maurizio Sarri storms off after a training bust-up
Maurizio Sarri shares a joke with Eden Hazard
Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sharpens his shooting skills

By Luke Brown

Before the grumbles, power struggles and rising mountain of discarded cigarette butts, there had been real optimism at the beginning of Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea reign.

An impressive 3-2 victory over Arsenal on the second weekend of the season kickstarted a fine run of form that saw the Blues win their opening five matches, not tasting defeat until a trip to Wembley saw them torn apart by Tottenham at the end of November.

Chelsea's match against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge was in many ways Sarri's first real test, with his side racing into a two-goal lead. They then allowed Arsenal back into the game during a dreadful spell at the end of the first half, before wresting back control in the second and taking all three points thanks to a late Marcos Alonso goal.

"I enjoyed the match for 75 minutes," Sarri ruminated afterwards. "The other 15 minutes, it was better to smoke. It was a wonderful match for everybody but those 15 minutes were horrible. At the moment we are just not ready."

He wasn't wrong. In the following weeks, the goals were to dry up: having scored 27 times in their opening 11 league matches, they netted just 13 times in their subsequent 13 outings.

The return fixture against Arsenal again laid bare their need for new options up front - it took them until the 82nd minute to register a shot on target - with goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscielny sealing a dominant 2-0 win that revitalised Arsenal's top-four challenge.

Those two matches, as well as the way in which the two teams heaved themselves over the line during a peculiarly underwhelming end to the season, leaves tonight's Europa League final tantalisingly poised.

Both have beaten the other. Neither team is playing particularly well. And both look likely to be missing players that shone in this fixture earlier this season.

Given how well the two teams know one another, it is a strikingly difficult match to predict.

Both sides will be missing influential players. Unai Emery will be disappointed that, for very different reasons, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Hector Bellerin are unavailable.

It feels as though the reaction to Mkhitaryan's enforced omission - Arsenal have left the player out of their squad over fears for his safety in Azerbaijan - has been slightly muted because of his inconsistent form under Emery, but he was arguably the club's best player at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. There is little doubt he is a huge loss.

Both Mkhitaryan and Bellerin played vital roles in Arsenal's attempt to pin back Alonso at Stamford Bridge, with the Armenian international orchestrating his side's press.

They successfully managed to make life uncomfortable for Alonso, with the Spaniard only able to gallop forward late on after Emery had appeared to decide to play for a point.

Working out a way to keep Alonso quiet, should Sarri give him the nod over Emerson Palmieri, will be a priority for Emery.

Meanwhile, with Bellerin ruled out injured, Ainsley Maitland-Niles will be used as a right wing-back, and the 21-year-old will be singled out by Sarri.

He was targeted by Valencia in both legs of the semi-final, while his rash red card against Leicester illustrated that he can prove vulnerable when isolated in one-on-one defensive positions.

Arsenal's task can be boiled down to one simple - if not particularly easy - thing.

"Eden Hazard is a player for decisive moments," he remarked. "Chelsea are capable of winning the match thanks purely to him, and that ability I have only seen in (Lionel) Messi, Cristiano (Ronaldo), Neymar and (Mohamed) Salah."

Hazard has enjoyed the most productive campaign of his seven-year stay at Stamford Bridge, contributing 16 goals and 15 assists in his 37 Premier League appearances, although Arsenal will not only be wary of the direct impact he can make.

They also have to worry about what Hazard is doing when the ball is nowhere near: how he glides into half-spaces and dances elusively on the periphery.

Arsenal cannot allow him to exploit Maitland-Niles - yet their three-man defence risks becoming overrun should their centre-backs mark him too tightly.

Chelsea's other key player is Jorginho. With N'Golo Kante likely to miss out with a knee injury, Jorginho will be more instrumental, the man tasked with establishing and maintaining Chelsea's rhythm.

Aaron Ramsey is such a loss to Arsenal in this regard, as the Italian has repeatedly struggled when man-marked and manhandled this season - particularly at the Emirates, where Emery's decision to drop the Welshman deep to nullify Jorginho effectively won him the game.

While there are enough outstanding players for this final to be decided by individual brilliance, the players themselves are anticipating a tactical contest.

On Emery, Luiz said: "In this competition, he knows how to win and we know we have to beat Unai as well as Arsenal."

It promises to be a tight, technical final, which could be decided by players off the pitch as much as those on it.

Talking points

Safety first for no-go Mkhitaryan

Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan will play no part in the final. The Armenia international will not be travelling due to the ongoing dispute between his country and Azerbaijan. Despite assurances from Azerbaijan against any threat of violence, the 30-year-old was not convinced about his safety on the pitch and some Gunners fans have debated on social media whether to boycott the final in protest.

Hazard can sign off in style

Eden Hazard will want to bow out with a bang in what is expected to be his final game for Chelsea. The 28-year-old, who has said he has made a decision over his future and informed the club, appears likely to join Real Madrid later this summer. The Belgium forward has a year left on his contract at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea are currently fighting a Fifa transfer ban over Financial Fair Play rules and cashing in on their prize asset now, rather than losing him for nothing next summer, would help balance the books.

Problems getting there and Baku again

Uefa have been criticised for choosing Baku to host a major European final and apologised for the travel chaos experienced by both clubs' fans, who face a round trip of 5,000 miles. Arsenal and Chelsea have been allocated only 6,000 tickets each, which represents 17 per cent of the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, due to restrictions over the number of people Baku's airport can handle.

Arrivederci Signor Sarri?

Maurizio Sarri could also be involved in his final game for Chelsea as speculation mounts over his future. The 60-year-old has not had an easy ride at Stamford Bridge after replacing fellow Italian Antonio Conte last July. He publicly criticised his players in January, while it has been reported some senior players will look to leave the club if he remains in charge.

Emery is 'Mr Europa League'

Arsenal boss Unai Emery will make it a record-breaking fourth Europa League win as manager if his side overcome their London rivals. Emery, appointed as Arsene Wenger's successor just over a year ago, guided his former club Sevilla to three successive tournament wins in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Giovanni Trapattoni is the only other manager to win the tournament three times, with Juventus (1977 and 1993) and Inter Milan (1991).

Chelsea

Arsenal

Europa League Final Baku Olympic Stadium, Tonight, 8pm

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