Two and a half weeks have passed since a 3 – 1 win at Turf Moor signalled the end of the Premier League season. Two and a half farcical weeks, it must be said. Airport capacity, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the disgraceful lack of accessibility for disabled supporters, not forgetting returned tickets from both finalists and sponsors alike; UEFA, scripted by Brian Rix.
There is no surprise that the organisers and host city sought to make light of these issues. Amy Lawrence arrived in the stadium to find the Iron Curtain creaking in the wind. Nothing will be allowed to interfere with the success of the Europa League final:
Six thousand missing fans? A minor inconvenience when you can order a recording of a cast of angels from Amazon.
I, however, will not knock Azerbaijan football. Without it, Bobby Moore wouldn’t have hoisted the Jules Rimet trophy high into the north London sky in 1966. Russian linesman? Azerbaijan’s top referee at the time.
Fifty-three years on, Baku hosts the 39th game. The time for talking is over and Arsenal face Chelsea with a Champions League place at stake. For us, that is. Chelsea took full advantage of our slack-jawed form during the run-in and finished third. We languished in fifth.
The win at Turf Moor doesn’t resolve our travel sickness. In Europe, however, the further from home we ventured, the better our performances. Can we produce another great away day? One more for the road?
We shouldn’t underestimate the capabilities of Unai Emery’s Arsenal. It’s exasperating but winning in Naples and Valencia, two stadia where better Arsenal sides capitulated? Credit where credit is due to the players and dozen subs at Unai Emery’s disposal. Judging by UEFA’s organisational skills so far, most of the subs will be sitting on upturned buckets.
Let’s Compete AND Win Titles
A big performance is needed tonight, one with “big passion” to use Emery’s favourite phrase. Speaking in El Mundo earlier this week, Emery said he “did not promise titles, I promised to compete” when he was interviewed for the Arsenal job. Arsène, he ventured, “little by little…lost the competitive gene”. Tonight is a chance to rediscover that.
It’s a final we must win for the club as a whole. Wenger’s departure, Gazidis scuttling off with his tail between his legs, followed by Mislintat and a host of players whose contracts expire this summer; things will never be the same again.
Collecting silverware in the first season of Emery’s reign is a bonus. Accompanying that with a top four finish would have been better but that didn’t happen. We’re opening the stage door and looking to sneak into the Champions League door while no-one is looking. And we have the personnel to do that.
The comprehensive victory over Chelsea at the Emirates points the way, the received wisdom goes. However, I don’t expect us to play as if this were a home match; we are far more effective on the counter-attack.
Yet, there were elements of that match worth repeating. The diamond midfield, for example, underpinned the victory by closing down their opponents; ruthlessly. Torreira, Guendouzi and Xhaka must do the same to Kante and Jorginho. No matter the noises about the former’s absence, I expect him to start. Finals have a habit of making players fitter than they are, in both their own and the coach’s eyes.
We have the firepower to win but the slack-jawed defending to lose it. We’re very slack-jawed. Monreal’s experience will, I think, see him in the XI ahead of Kolasinac. However, the Bosnian started that match back in January and arguably, we’ve seen the worst of him in a back five. Bulldozing your way to the touchline is fine but get some delivery after that.
Emery doesn’t want to give away any clues about his Arsenal:
It depends. I want us to be a chameleon team, able to play in possession, in static attack against close opponents, or to counterattack. For the first, Ozil suits very well, he has the virtue of discovering spaces. For the second, Aubameyang. To the extent that we are able to combine it, we will grow.Emery On His Arsenal
Noticeably, this is all about attack, not the defence. Has he given up on them until reinforcements arrive this summer or are we in a phase of winning high-scoring games? Sadly, the chameleons we have at the moment are the defenders. One minute they are professional footballers, the next they camouflage themselves as clowns working with Charlie Cairoli.
The key is not to panic, which is a big ask on an occasion when nerves will be frayed to begin with. But as the matches grew in importance in this competition, we rose to the task and then some. Tonight is the culmination of those efforts.
Expecting a win is too much; believing we can and will isn’t. I believe we can and will win if everyone plays to the best of their ability. Chelsea aren’t Manchester City but you’d struggle to believe that with the media coverage.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.
The Final Throw of the Dice
And the anticipation. No matter what you think of the Europa League, it’s a European final and for a club of our size, our European record is abysmal. Let’s win tonight and use it as a stepping stone to greater things.