Top level football might be getting a little thin on the ground right now, but we still have some huge events to look forward to over the next week. Near the top of that list is the Baku based London derby on Wednesday 29th of May, when Chelsea and Arsenal fly out to Azerbaijan to contest the Europa League Final.
Both teams have enjoyed a resurgence under new managers this season. Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri has endured a tumultuous debut season in England, but has ultimately taken The Blues back into the Premier League top four and reached two cup finals. Unai Emery’s first season at the helm of The Gunners has been less fractious, although their 5th place finish in the Premier League and early exit from the domestic cup competitions mean it’s been somewhat less successful so far.
That could all change in Baku though. Sarri is looking to claim his first ever major trophy in management, while the more experienced Emery is gunning for a record fourth Europa League triumph after his unprecedented trio of successes at Sevilla.
Both sides of this Europa League Final have players capable of turning the tide all by themselves, so where could the tie be won?
View all our free betting tips and predictions for the clash in our Europa League Final match preview.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang vs David Luiz
In his first full season at Arsenal, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has more than proved his worth to Unai Emery and the Emirates faithful. The Gabonese hitman has notched 30 goals in his 47 appearances across the Europa League and Premier League, and eight of those have come in this run to the Europa League Final.
The pacey forward has only improved as the competition has worn on too. He scored a hat-trick in the semi final away leg against Valencia and has scored six of his eight goals in the last five matches, but he’ll be up against tough opposition on Wednesday.
David Luiz didn’t play a single minute of European football in the group stages of this competition, but ever since they entered the knockout phase he has been almost ever-present. The Brazilian centre back made three tackles, nine clearances, and four blocks over the two legs of their semi-final tie, and he’ll need to remain on top form to stop Aubameyang.
Luiz hasn’t yet conceded against the Arsenal hitman, but his two appearances against him haven’t exactly been filled with joy. Chelsea have conceded four goals in two matches against the Aubameyang-laden Arsenal, with David Luiz acting at the heart of the defence on both occasions.
Eden Hazard vs Ainsley Maitland-Niles
It could very well be his final appearance in a Chelsea shirt, and if it is then Eden Hazard will want to leave Stamford Bridge as the hero of Baku. The Belgian maestro has been the Blues’ saviour on many occasions this season, scoring 16 goals and laying on 15 assists in the Premier League to guide his team to a 3rd place finish.
The diminutive winger has been used sparingly in the Europa League though, only making three starts in total. He’s yet to score in the competition, although he did set up Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s crucial opener at Stamford Bridge against Eintracht Frankfurt. Given how well he has performed domestically this season, it’s clear that Hazard’s lack of European goals is simply down to lack of opportunity.
He’ll likely be pitted against the relatively inexperienced Ainsley Maitland-Niles should Emery opt for his three-at-the-back setup again. The 21 year old winger-turned-wing-back will be expected to do his fair share of tracking back as they look to nullify Hazard’s significant threat. Maitland-Niles certainly isn’t a bad player to have at your disposal in this situation – He’s fast, hard working, and has made an impressive 19 tackles in his eight Europa League starts this season.
Of course, he’ll have a significant amount of help from the right side of the central defensive trio as well. Whether that will be enough to stop an in form Hazard is still very much in doubt though, so it’s more a case of the Gunners hoping Chelsea’s star man has a bad day at the office.
Mateo Kovacic vs Granit Xhaka
Croatian international and Real Madrid loanee Mateo Kovacic has been a steady performer for Chelsea during his year-long temporary stint with the Blues. However, Kovacic remains a somewhat divisive figure among the Chelsea support, with many fans against the idea of signing the midfielder on a permanent basis.
Kovacic has one last audition and chances to shine in a Blue shirt tomorrow in the club’s biggest game of the season. The technically talented schemer has yet to register a single goal or assist in the 2018/19 Europa League, though he has completed 91.9% of his completed passes.
Perhaps the most relevant stat is that he has been fouled 2.1 times per game in the competition, and in Baku he’ll come up against one of the most combative midfielders in the game. It’s safe to say that Granit Xhaka doesn’t exactly hold back when it comes to getting stuck in. He has picked up an impressive 13 yellow cards in 38 appearances this season and has averaged 2.4 fouls per game in the Europa League.
Xhaka will be tasked with limiting Mateo Kovacic’s time on the ball in Baku, and the chances are that we could be in for a fiery midfield contest between the two.
Mesut Ozil vs N’Golo Kante
Another intriguing midfield battle will be the one between Arsenal’s divisive playmaker Mesut Ozil and the midfield general of Chelsea, N’Golo Kante.
The 30 year old German hasn’t exactly been hitting the lofty heights in terms of performances this season, but he’s an undeniably talented figure to have pulling the strings behind the strikers. He’s chipped in with six goals and three assists in all competitions this season, but his passing accuracy is approaching the 90% mark and his ability to split defences apart with a single ball will worry Sarri and company.
Fortunately for Chelsea, they have something of an expert in breaking up the play at their disposal. N’Golo Kante has been employed in a more advanced role at times this season, but he really shines when he’s right in the thick of the action in midfield. The former Leicester man made five tackles across the two legs against Eintracht Frankfurt in the semi-finals, and if anybody is going to stop Ozil pulling the strings it’s him.
Kante’s stats are somewhat skewed due to his time in a more attacking role, but when playing against the top teams his ability to break up the play is clear for all to see. He has made 25 tackles and 21 interceptions in his 10 Premier League matches against the other Big Six sides this season, including recording a massive seven interceptions when Chelsea visited Spurs in November.
Olivier Giroud vs Laurent Koscielny
Former Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud faces off against his previous employers on Wednesday, and while he’s been rather sparingly used in the Premier League for Chelsea this season (7 starts and 20 substitute appearances) he has been one of the many shining stars of the Europa League.
He comes into the final joint top of the scoring charts alongside Eintracht Frankfurt’s Luka Jovic, with 10 goals scored in 13 appearances. A goal on Wednesday would almost certainly secure him the Golden Boot, but he’ll have to get the better of compatriot Laurent Koscielny first.
Arsenal’s leader at the back was hampered by injury earlier in the season and has only started 22 competitive games for the Gunners, but he has been a key figure at the back during the Europa League knockout stages. His reassuring presence at the heart of Arsenal’s defence can’t be underestimated, and he has the stats to back it up too. A monstrous 29 clearances in eight knockout stage appearances, with 12 interceptions, six tackles, and five blocks to add on to that.
Olivier Giroud certainly won’t have an easy time of it in Baku, but he has some impressive numbers to fall back on too – 43 shots, 33 aerial duel victories, 10 goals, and 3 assists in the Europa League this season.
Click here to read about the 5 key battles to watch out for in the Champions League Final.