There is no exact opposite of “the gift that keeps on giving”. “The takeaway that keeps on taking” just does not have the same connotation of something that is so utterly useless that over time it just becomes ever more useless. But perhaps the closest that we can get is the 2019 Europa League Final in Baku.
Europa League Final: Ropey for All?
The Europa League has famously been dubbed in England “The Ropey Old League”. Such is the concentration of footballing talent, media focus and global fan interest in the Champions League, especially after this season’s stellar edition, that Europe’s second club competition can only look completely second-rate by comparison.
Nevertheless, UEFA’s decision to stage the Europa League final in the Azerbaijani capital has somehow achieved the near-impossible achievement of making a second-rate competition look completely third, fourth or even fifth-rate.
No Winner In Baku
Of course, one of Arsenal or Chelsea will ultimately triumph in Baku, if necessary after extra-time and penalties, but in some senses, there will be absolutely no winner from this most unfortunate of finals. The Azerbaijani Government’s attempt to “sportswash” (to use a quintessentially 21st-century phrase) its dubious human rights record by hosting a major sporting event has already been condemned by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations.
And of course, there has been further intense focus on Azerbaijan’s political situation as a result of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s decision not to play in the Final. That was because of his fears that he and his family would have been targeted over the ongoing Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, which, having begun in 1994, is now one of the longest-running conflicts anywhere in the world.
In addition, the fans of both Arsenal and Chelsea have been angry for weeks, first, at being allocated only 6,000 tickets each in a stadium that holds more than 10 times that number. Then they became even angrier when they realised that even if they could get a ticket they almost certainly wouldn’t be able to use it, because the lack of a direct flight from London to Baku means interminable changes and stopovers in other parts of eastern Europe.
And A Disinterested Chelsea?
Finally, for the two clubs themselves, the Final presents huge obstacles. For Chelsea, after qualifying directly for the Champions League by coming third in the Premier League, Baku is arguably more of an unwanted distraction than an end-of-season showpiece. Perhaps it has prevented them from resolving the immediate futures of both their manager, Maurizio Sarri, and their star player, Eden Hazard.
But a Nightmare For Arsenal
However, without doubt the biggest nightmare that Baku presents for anyone is for Arsenal. That is because for them it is not just a “Ropey Old Final” that they will just have to put up with, win or lose, but because they must win it to qualify for the Champions League next season. As a result, it will not only determine the immediate future of the club but arguably its medium to long-term future as a supposedly major English and European power.
Chelsea, of course, would like to win in Baku, if only to give Hazard (in particular) and Sarri a winning send-off if they ultimately decide to leave, or, in Sarri’s case, are sacked. But Arsenal absolutely have to win and all the chaos and complaints surrounding the Final, not least the enforced absence of one of their players, can hardly have improved their chances of doing so.
Laurent Koscielny and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are making the right noises that they will “win it for Miki”. However, the reality is that the Armenian’s absence, after an injury-plagued and frankly inconsistent 18 months at Arsenal, will not be nearly as big a potential obstacle as the others that Arsenal might face, namely the possibility that they might be playing in a half-empty stadium, against a fully motivated Eden Hazard, with all the pressure to win on them rather than their opponents.
Arsenal Have To Win
In theory, of course, the fact that Arsenal need to win whereas Chelsea would merely like to win should tip the odds in Arsenal’s favour. Unfortunately, Arsenal have recently shown that they can fail to defeat a team that supposedly has little or nothing to play for.
Just a few weeks ago, in their final home Premier League match against Brighton & Hove Albion, they incredibly still had a chance to qualify for the Champions League by reaching the top four in the league, after Tottenham Hotspur had continued their own inept end to the season, Amsterdam heroics excepted.
Instead, despite scoring the supposedly all-important “early goal” to relieve any pressure on the pitch or in the stands, Arsenal – both players and fans – seemed to have a kind of collective nervous breakdown. It culminated in the inevitable concession of an equaliser to Brighton and the end of any chance of qualifying for the Champions League through the Premier League itself.
The Safety Net
Of course, for Arsenal the Europa League has always been a kind of safety net in case they failed to make the top four in England, and that is arguably why the club hired Unai Emery, a three-time winner of the competition with Sevilla, in the first place. However, Emery never went into any of his three finals with Sevilla under the kind of pressure that he is now under at Arsenal, which will surely only intensify in the last few days before the Final.
If Arsenal don’t win the Europa League, then Emery’s apparent emphasis on the competition at the expense of the Premier League, as shown by his resting his captain and best central defender, Laurent Koscielny, for the away game at Leicester City to save him for the home leg of the Europa League semi-final against Valencia, will have backfired spectacularly. Then there would surely be widespread questions about his future.
It is one of the great clichés of football, and in particular football management, that players need no motivating for a final. And yet in that respect, as in so many others, Baku 2019 might be the exception to the rule. Instead of being staged in a world-famous venue, in front of a huge crowd, it will take place in a far-flung and potentially scarcely attended outpost of the European game. In those circumstances, players may struggle to be fully motivated.
Grab The Lifeline – Or Die
Ultimately, that may not matter to Chelsea, who frankly can afford to lose. But if all the off-field distractions and pressures get to Arsenal and contribute to any downturn on the pitch, then it would – equally frankly – be disastrous. It would condemn them to yet another season in the Europa League and, as a result, a dramatically reduced summer transfer budget.
It would also increase the pressure on the manager, the team and the club’s absentee American owner, Stan Kroenke. So, while for everyone else Baku 2019 may be the ropiest of finals, for Arsenal it is the most valuable of lifelines. They must grab it, or face the consequences.
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