The curtain comes down on the season with a cup at stake and a capital city rivalry to the fore. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton provide their final preview of 2018/19…
This Europa League final takes place in distant Azerbaijan but will be contested by London’s top two clubs over the past 25 years. Chelsea and Arsenal have accounted for 24 of the past 25 titles or trophies brought to England’s capital – the Blues with 16, the Gunners eight.
Now Maurizio Sarri aims to retrace the ennobled footsteps of Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo and become the third Italian coach to garland Stamford Bridge in European glory. It would be third time lucky for the club this season after losing out in the Community Shield and Carabao Cup final.
The Italian has achieved one of his targets, leading the west Londoners back into the Champions League. Arsenal finished two places below in a Europa League slot, and their only route into the elite competition is a win on Wednesday night. The victors are also guaranteed a place in Pot 1 of the 2019/20 group stage draw.
Chelsea arrive in Azerbaijan on an unbeaten run of 17 Europa League matches, a record in the competition. Arsenal have won their last five in the competition. The west Londoners who, by dint of winning last season’s FA Cup, have bumped the Gunners into playing away games first throughout the knockout campaign, must now deliver a more significant blow to the north Londoners.
Chelsea have reached 20 major finals since 1998, three more than the nearest top-six rival, Man United, with 17.
— Key stat
Ideally, of course, we would not be trekking thousands of miles to play a next-door neighbour in what is our second latest competitive match played in any season (Everton in the 2009 FA Cup final was 30 May 2009). And, yes, it is a shame not to face rarer opposition with no axes to grind rather than our oldest top-flight derby rivals who stir so many banked memories, good and bad.
Yet jeopardy, derived from an Old French term for a chess game in which the chances of winning and losing are evenly balanced, is the very essence of sport. And the greater the danger of loss, humiliation and failure, the greater the gain to the victors and their supporters.
This is Chelsea’s 16th major final since the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003 and the 28th overall. The Gunners, though, have a slight edge when it comes to previous cup final heads-to-head. Although the Blues triumphed 2-1 in the 2007 League Cup final (part of a domestic trophy ‘double’), the north Londoners prevailed in FA Cup showdowns, 2-0 in 2002 and 2-1 in 2017.
Perhaps surprisingly, the pair have squared up only once before in Europe, back in the quarter-finals of the 2003/04 Champions League, near the dawn of Roman Abramovich’s ownership.
This is the fifth time the Blues’ have reached the last two in European competitions and the Gunners’ sixth, but the west Londoners have claimed five continental pots (including the Super Cup) compared to a pair for Arsenal, the most recent 25 years ago.
A sixth European success (with an all-England Super Cup to come) would put the Blues back level again with Manchester United when it comes to total European trophies collected. They won this competition two years ago.
The handle-less Italian-designed trophy, 65cm in height, 15kg in heft, is a silver cup with a yellow marble plinth and was first raised aloft as the UEFA Cup in 1972. Only a dozen clubs have lifted it twice or more, and only two of those were from England.
After scooping this trophy in 2013 Chelsea became only the fourth club to have lifted all four major UEFA competitions, joining an elite group of Ajax, Bayern Munich and Juventus. The Red Devils’ success in 2017 made it five.
For the next few days at least the Blues remain the only team in London to have won the European Cup/Champions League, and if a third success in eight UEFA campaigns is secured tonight it would be the best sequence by an English club since the 1980s.
A major talking point has been the English dominance of the two European showpiece events this season, and this will be third time two teams from the same nation have squared up in the Europa League final, after Porto met Braga in 2011 and Atletico played Athletic in 2012. The Europa League and Champions League finals will be the third and fourth all-English affairs in Europe; Chelsea and Tottenham will have been involved in half of them.
ALL-ENGLISH EUROPEAN FINALS
1972 UEFA Cup Tottenham 3-2 agg Wolverhampton
2008 Champions League Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea (6-5 on pens)
2019 Europa League Chelsea v Arsenal
2019 Champions League Tottenham v Liverpool
Never before has a national association managed a clean sweep of participants in these two UEFA finals, though Italy provided four of the six teams who contested the European Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Cup finals in 1989/90.
Europa League goals
Olivier Giroud (Chelsea) 10
Luka Jovic (Frankfurt*) 10
Wissam Ben Yedder (Seville*) 8
Munas Dabbur (Salzburg*) 8
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) 8
(*No longer in competition.)
Europa League assists
Willian (Chelsea) 7
Igor Stasevich (BATE*) 7
Mijat Gacinovic (Frankfurt*) 6
Andreas Ulmer (Salzburg*) 5
Olivier Giroud (Chelsea) 4
Pedro (Chelsea) 4
Viktor Tsygankov (Dynamo Kiev*) 4
(*No longer in competition.)
Both teams go into this game with injuries. However, Chelsea would not be Chelsea without significant adversity to overcome in a European final. In 2012, Ramires, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Raul Meireles were all suspended for the Champions League showpiece. And for the 2013 Europa League finale injuries ruled out Ryan Bertrand, John Mikel Obi, Eden Hazard, Oriol Romeu, and John Terry, while Demba Ba was cup-tied. The spirit in the camp meant others took on unfamiliar roles and became club legends. Who may do that for the Blues on Wednesday night?
The video assistant referee (VAR) team will make its Europa League bow tonight, making this the first major European final to have direct input from the remote review system.
The VARs will constantly check only for ‘clear and obvious errors’ in the following four match-changing situations: goals and their build-up, penalty area incidents, red cards and mistaken identity.
Following its trial introduction in the knockout stage of the Champions League, the VAR team has now doubled in size for the final, with a newly-titled ‘Offside VAR’ among the four analysts. Gone are the wand-waving additional assistant referees behind each goal.
Should the scores be level after 90 minutes, 30 minutes extra-time will be played and, if necessary, the winners will be decided by a penalty shootout in the ABAB format.
Chelsea have been involved in five penalty shoot-outs in Europe, winning in Munich in 2012 and against Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-final that led to this match. Arsenal have won two and lost two of their four, the most recent coming 10 years ago with a 7-6 success against Roma in the Champions League Round of 16.
Extra-time would allow each side to make up to four replacements from a 12-man substitutes’ bench – a considerable expansion on the previous seven.
It may be worth noting that the exclusive UK rights holder to the Europa League, BT Sport, have made the final free to view on Virgin Media (not BT TV or Sky), and through the BT Sport app, website and YouTube channel.
THE BEST THAT CAN HAPPEN THIS EVENING…
Chelsea, pride of London… and Europe.