After 204 matches featuring 213 teams, from 55 countries and with 560 goals scored, this evening the new Europa League winners will be found from a match between two sides based seven miles apart in different parts of London. For both Chelsea and Arsenal, this season has been largely about what they haven’t managed to do more than what they have. The Blues kept up a title challenge for roughly a third of the season before, at the last gasp, just securing a top four place. Unai Emery’s men, for their part, were the side whose end-of-season dip allowed Chelsea to secure that spot.
Nonetheless, one of these sides will cap off the season on a high, though they’ll do it in front of a Baku Olympic Stadium which holds 70,000 people but will contain a maximum of 12,000 fans from the teams contesting it. Additionally, due to a political dispute between Azerbaijan and his native Armenia, Gunners midfielder Henryk Mkhitaryan has not been able to travel for this game. It’s perhaps the most controversial Europa League final there has ever been – but for the side that wins, that’s likely to be swiftly forgotten.
Chelsea vs Arsenal Prediction: Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal
Arsenal come into this match with a very specific good luck charm in the form of their first-year head coach Unai Emery. Prior to his stint with PSG, Emery won this competition three times in a row with his previous club, Seville. A win here would mean that he had brought home the trophy four times in as many attempts – and Arsenal have been more convincing in this competition than their opponents here. With the Europa League Whisperer in their dugout, and Chelsea currently beset by uncertainty over the futures of star player Eden Hazard and coach Mauricio Sarri, the North London side could belie their underdog status here.
Our recommended tip: Hazard and Aubameyang Score
This match may feature two sides with a lot of work to do to get back to the early-to-mid-00s heydays when both were undeniable title candidates, and the days when both could field a full XI of undeniable stars are, for the moment, a distant memory. What both do have, however, is attacking players who can win the game in a heartbeat, and in Eden Hazard and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang they have talismanic forwards who thrive on big occasions. Expect Hazard, probably playing his last game in Chelsea blue, and PEA to get on the scoresheet here – a decent punt at 7/1 with William Hill.
Across the Premier League season, these sides split the head-to-head equally, with Chelsea winning the first game at Stamford Bridge on the second weekend of the season. In a thrilling contest, the home side led 2-0 after just twenty minutes through Pedro and Morata, but by half time had been pegged back, Mkhitaryan scoring on 37 minutes and then laying on an equaliser for Iwobi. Just as Arsenal seemed like they might pick up a well-earned point, however, defender Marcos Alonso struck for the hosts.
In mid-January, with Chelsea struggling, the return game again saw the home side go 2-0 ahead, with Alex Lacazzette and Laurent Koscielny grabbing the goals. This time, there was no fightback, and Arsenal took three well-earned points.
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Players to watch: Eden Hazard & Laurent Koscielny
There’s no contest for the most important player in this Chelsea side – and he’s one who will want to sign off in style with a move to Real Madrid all but certain this summer. Hazard is so demonstrably the best player in the Blues squad that it’s hard not to wonder what they’ll do without him – a classy dribbler, passer and finisher, he’s carried the side for much of this season. That said, he’s saved his best performances for league games – scoring no goals in this competition – and will hope to put that right tonight.
Koscielny is picked in this regard ahead of Aubameyang for one key reason. Although the Gabonese striker is essential to his side, the presence of Lacazzette means Arsenal could weather Aubameyang’s loss. The French centre-back, however, takes the Gunners’ defence from a chaotic mess to something resembling a functioning unit. That’s going to be important this evening, in a strange atmosphere, and Koscielny’s cool head could make the difference between winning and losing for the Gunners.