Baku National Stadium, Azerbaijan – Wednesday, May 29, 2019 – 20:00 hrs GMT
Chelsea and Arsenal make a daunting 3000-mile trip to faraway Azerbaijan for an all-England showdown at the 2018-19 UEFA Europa League final on May 29th. Both London clubs put up strong shows in the Group stages with Maurizio Sarri’s Blues winning 5 of their 6 games and going through to the finals unbeaten. Arsenal, on the other hand dropped two games in their progress to the final stages but were emphatic in their knock-out wins over Napoli and Valencia.
For Chelsea, news coming in from the fitness front is not all that good ahead of the Baku clash. Key forward Ruben Loftus-Cheek injured himself in a friendly win against New England Revolution on the 16th and doesn’t look like he’s going to recover soon. Antonio Rudiger is undergoing a lengthy knee surgery, thus ruling out the German centre-back from Wednesday’s night clash and so is 18-year old winger Callum Hudson-Odoi with an injured Achilles heel. The good news is that defensive mid-fielder and key playmaker N’Golo Kante will be back, having recovered from a prolonged injury. The French international will complete the midfield three that also includes with Jorginho and Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic.
But the key to a Chelsea win will lie in their forwards Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud for it will be goals that Chelsea will need. The Blues have played out five draws in their last six games, their 3-0 win against lowly New England Revolution being the only one. Giroud is the joint-top scorer in the Europa League so far this season with 10 goals in the competition and Eden Hazard has by far been Chelsea’s best player with 26 goals and 18 assists in 2018-19.
Chelsea’s expected line-up playing in a 4-3-3 formation: Kepa Arrizabalaga (Goalkeeper); Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Andreas Christensen, Emerson (defenders); N’ Golo Kante, Jorginho, Ross Barkley (midfielders); Eden Hazard, Olivier Giroud, Pedro (forwards).
For Arsenal, the big news is that of Henrikh Mkhitaryan opting out of the May 29th finals, the UEFA having failed to come up with assurances for the Armenian mid-fielder’s safety in backdrop of his country’s conflict with Azerbaijan. Star central midfielder Aaron Ramsey who would have played his last match on Wednesday before leaving for Juventus, will unfortunately have to give the finals a pass thanks to a thigh injury. Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding with knee injuries, English international striker Danny Welbeck and Denis Suarez with ankle and groin injuries are all out as well. The 37-year old Peter Cech will be playing the last game of his career as custodian before he hangs up his boots on Wednesday night. With Mkhitrayan and Ramsey out, it will be Mesut Ozil filling in the space behind strikers Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Aubameyang and Lacazette are in sublime touch having come into goals heavily in the huge 4-0 and 7-3 wins over Napoli and Valencia on their way to the finals.
The momentum is with Arsenal given that Chelsea distinctly struggled in their quarter-final and semi-final fixtures against Sporting Praha and Eintracht Frankfurt. In fact, Chelsea were lucky to scrape through to the finals on penalties after being held by Eintracht 2-2 in 120 minutes of playing time in the second leg of the semi-finals in London.
Coach Unai Emery’s Arsenal likely starting XI playing in a 3-4-3 formation: Petr Cech (Goalkeeper); Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal (defenders); Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Lucas Torreira, Granit Xhaka, Sead Kolasinac (defensive Midfielders); Mesut Ozil (attacking Midfielders); Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (forwards).
On a head-to-head basis in the last five games, Arsenal have emerged winners twice and Chelsea once with the other couple of games being draws.