It has been a long journey to get to Baku, in so many ways. For the team it has meant 14 games so far and travelling to seven different countries with 12 wins, 2 draws and 0 defeats on the way.
Considering the work load this season it certainly put some stress on the squad but the rotation worked a treat and not every player had to slog his way round Europe for every game. There have been moments when players have looked tired but somehow they have managed to get through it.
Writing the above has underlined it has been at the very least, just as tough for our travelling fans. Maybe there are not that many who have managed to get to all the games in this long and winding road to Azerbaijan, but even doing part of it under your own steam is impressive, especially considering the considerable financial outlay. Those who behave, and they are the vast majority of our fans, really should be recognised and honoured.
The stories filtering in about the fans’ trips over here to Baku have left me slightly embarrassed to say that I was feeling a little weary after arriving here myself. I was in seven different hotels in seven nights in seven different cities before I was at the Scottish Cup final on Saturday. I then covered the SPAL v Milan Serie A game on Sunday. I only got about three hours sleep after travelling back and then I was up at the crack of dawn to get to Gatwick from Edinburgh to catch the flight to Baku. The end of the season is stressful for us jobbing pundits and still we get no sympathy. There is a reason for that, we deserve precisely none!
It is fantastic to be at these games and if you read the previous paragraph closely you will understand another of the reasons we deserve no sympathy. ‘To catch the flight to Baku’, singular not plural. I was lucky enough to be on a charter plane for the club staff and the Chelsea TV production team. Believe me it was a much easier journey than just about everyone else who had to take a variety of expensive and slow flights across the entire continent.
Oh yes, and there was another bunch of folk at the front of the plane too, but they were obviously not that important, they being merely the team and the coaching staff.
I sat beside Jason Cundy on the way out. Well I sat and he lay back almost horizontal in his seat grabbing some zeds. Before he had a kip we reminisced about the old days and how things were very different back then.
Even he was surprised when I explained to him the way the Scotland national team used to fly abroad. VIP businessmen and Football Association staff were plonked at the front on the big reclining seats while the players sat in the middle of the plane in basic cattle class. Right behind them came the journalists, many of them bugging the team interminably for quotes and stories. Many of the said hacks were also smoking solidly all the way from Belgrade back to Blighty. In fact I used to think they were called hacks because they all had hacking smoker’s coughs. Actually most of us players had hacking coughs by the time we got off the flight too. Down at the front of the flight the executives were kind enough not to smoke cigarettes, but let themselves down slightly by puffing on big fat cigars to go with their malt whiskeys.
'We were being assaulted from all sides.'
— Pat Nevin
So yes, happily things have moved on and a little bit of tiredness because of an early start is certainly nothing to complain about in the wider scheme of things. The excitement of the upcoming game is enough to get the adrenalin going anyway and already the narrative seems to have settled into Arsenal being heavy favourites, which I am perfectly happy about.
They often talk about the pressure of cup finals and how they can affect you, well 95 per cent of the real pressure is clearly on Arsenal this time. They obviously need to win to get to the Champions League next season and of course Chelsea no longer do. Yes they will arguably be more ‘up for it’ because of this need to get into the Champions League, but do you really think Chelsea players will not be desperate to win a European final, especially after all the effort they have put into it already?
The expectations of being favourites could also weigh heavily on the Gunners, and at the end of this season in the league they had some unusually subdued performances when a couple of wins would have allowed them to cruise to a top-four finish. Pressure can sometimes affect a team negatively rather than positively, Chelsea really do not have to worry about that. They do.
The loss of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are definitely blows and for many even those are less concerning than Toni Rudiger’s absence. Once more it is apparently lined up for Arsenal’s status as favourites to be underlined, but it doesn’t always work that way. David Luiz and Andreas Christensen have had a few more games together under their belts now and a good few more training sessions too, so it will be anything but easy for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette who will need to show their best form.
The final training session will take place tonight with the tactical and technical stuff all well and truly wrapped up before the lads venture onto the field this time. I expect a fairly relaxed attitude and calm belief from the players in these last two days of the season. There is no need to use up any nervous energy and I can’t imagine any of our group chain smoking intensely like the old Scottish newspaper men of yore. Well maybe one guy might be tempted, but that will not have any negative effect on the 11 on the field.
Most importantly it is another chance for our players to write ourselves into the history books and for Maurizio Sarri, it would of course be a first trophy. Most managers win their first trophies, if they ever win a trophy, in the lower leagues or even domestic cup competitions. The Europa League, one of the top trophies in European football, wouldn’t be a bad way to start his tally. Good luck boys, the bragging rights after this one could be off the scale.