A Blue Up North previews Chelsea’s Europa League Final match up against Arsenal.
The 2018/19 season culminates for Chelsea nearly 2,500 miles from their home as they take on London rivals Arsenal in the Europa League Final in Baku, Azerbaijan.
A season that has seen some highs and plenty of lows for The Blues, could still result in them lifting their 6th european trophy in their history.
It has been a very controversial first season in charge of The Blues for manager Maurizio Sarri. His methods, actions, style and even his appearance has divided Chelsea fans like no previous manager has.
Despite having never won a trophy in a long career in football management, mostly in the lower Italian divisions, Chelsea were swayed by the plaudits given to the way his Napoli side as they pushed perennial title winners Juventus all the way.
However, Sarri has struggled to adapt his football philosophy on to this Chelsea squad and at times their play has been painful to watch. After an outstanding start to the season, The Blues endured some torrid times in January and February.
But the team slowly evolved, at times painfully slowly. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi were able to shine before receiving cruelly timed injuries. And there was enough resolve around the squad for them to survive a bumpy last few weeks to the Premier League season and achieve Champions League qualification with an incredible 3rd place finish.
Their progress through the knockout stages of the Europa League has been more impressive. Yes, most of their opponents have not been of an outstanding quality, but The Blues brushed them aside until coming up against Frankfurt in the semifinals.
The Germans, led in attack by the extremely dangerous Luka Jović, were a far tougher proposition for The Blues. A strong showing from Sarri’s team away in the first leg and an early lead in the second leg appeared to be sending the Londoners to the final.
But once again, The Blues had to overcome adversity and prove their worth with a come from behind win in a penalty shootout. It just epitomised their season. Playing well at times but also creators in their own downfall, and through it all, still over achieving.
The build up to the final has also been a bumpy ride. Injuries to key players, speculation over Sarri and Eden Hazard’s future and a clear disconnect between the club and it’s fans have meant this has not been the most anticipated european final in Chelsea’s history.
Add to that UEFA’s greed for an ex Soviet Union state’s oil money and we end up with the crazy situation of the smallest minority of Chelsea supporters able to attend the end of season show piece. Those lucky enough to travel will experience a friendly welcome and enjoy an adventure they otherwise may not have had the chance to encounter.
Chelsea’s opponents have endured a smoother ride in the build up. Perennial winner of this competition, Unai Emery, has managed to steer his squad almost unscathed to Azerbaijan. The Spaniard will only be missing Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who decided against traveling for security reasons, and Aaron Ramsey.
The key inclusion that all Chelsea fans will be waiting on though will be if former Blue Petr Cech will have his Arsenal farewell in a final against his previous club.
Chelsea’s injury list has just continued to grow in recent weeks. Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek are joined on the sidelines by Antonio Rudiger and N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman traveled with his teammates and trained at the ground the day before the match, but is not considered fit enough to be risked, at least from the start.
A lot of the talk in the build up has been centred around Arsenal needing to win so they can return to Champions League football next season, while victory would mean nothing for The Blues, who are already qualified thanks to their Premier League finishing position.
However, Chelsea are currently heading to be in pot 2 in the draw for next season’s group stages. Victory in Baku would elevate The Blues in to the top seeds pot and allow them to avoid the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich. That is a big enough incentive with regards to advancing through to the knockout stages.
In reality though, these conundrums will have little influence on the match. Both sides will be playing to win on the night and to lift the trophy. And all Blues fans will be hoping that their side still has enough winners in their ranks to carry them on to another memorable night and yet another major honour.
Written by Jon Ellis, home and away season ticket holder. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue