Image Source: Talksport
Finally, we arrive at the end game. This must have been one of Chelsea’s longest ever season’s, and at time’s it has certainly felt like it. Wherever your allegiances lie regarding the current manager, there can be no doubting he has got Chelsea back eating at Europe’s top table and dragged the team kicking and screaming to two finals.
Whilst on paper all that is good, the fractured relationships Maurizio Sarri’s installation as manager has bought about remain. However, that’s a discussion for another day. Chelsea have a European final to attend to, and, given Sarri’s counterpart, Unai Emery’s record in this competition – three times winner with Sevilla – it’s Arsenal that are favourites.
Chelsea have a host of injury concerns ahead of the game that is, ridiculously, being played in Baku, Azerbaijan with an even more ridiculous local kick-off time of 11pm. We know for sure that Antonio Rudiger, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi all miss out through serious injuries. N’golo Kante ought to be fit enough to return to the starting XI.
Chelsea’s record in the Europa League in its current guise is excellent. They have never been beaten in a knock-out game having won their only other entry into the competition back in 2013. In that game, Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea beat Benfica with a late injury-time winner by Branislav Ivanovic. His looping header from a Juan Mata corner sealed the win and gave Benitez a farewell trophy.
Maurizio Sarri will at least be able to pick Eden Hazard for his starting XI, something Benitez was unable to do due to an injury to the Belgian. It appears almost certain that the game on Wednesday will be Hazard’s final appearance in a Chelsea shirt. We’ll have a clearer idea towards the end of the week. There are still many questions to be answered concerning the futures of so many staff at the club. Even with a transfer embargo, it will be a busy summer in SW6.
The big question Sarri has to sort out in his mind is who plays in the front three. We’ve seen Hazard used as a ‘false 9’ in some of the big games, most notably in the League Cup Final against Manchester City, but Olivier Giroud is joint top-scorer in the competition. I know which way I’d go but this team selection is what I think the Italian will do.
Goalkeeper – You could almost changer goalkeeper to goalkepa at Chelsea. It’s a given that Kepa Arrizabalaga will start in goal despite his League Cup antics back in February. To be fair, those penalty saves at Stamford Bridge in the semi-final against Frankfurt secured Chelsea’s place in the final. He’ll believe that proved why he felt he should have remained on the pitch at Wembley. Special opposition mention for Kepa’s opposite number, Chelsea legend Petr Cech, who plays his last competitive game for Arsenal before retiring.
Defence – If title-winning teams are built from the back, Chelsea have some work to do before they once again reach the top of the Premier League. It’s not always been pretty but nonetheless, Cesar Azpilicueta will walking his side out in another final. Despite some misgivings, David Luiz pulled off a remarkable goal-line clearance that kept Chelsea in that Frankfurt semi-final. There’s no doubting his passion or ability, it’s just his geography that occasionally goes a tad awry. Personally, Gary Cahill would be alongside the Brazilian, however, he has a convenient injury that will probably see him not even benched. Sarri’s choice will inevitably be Andreas Christensen, who with some development, could still be a part of Chelsea’s future. The left-back position has been a problem for Chelsea since Ashley Cole left the club, even more so this season. Marcos Alonso still provides the biggest goal threat of the two protagonists for the role, Emerson is quicker but Alonso is the most likely defender to add to the scoresheet. As we saw with Ivanovic in 2013, that could be vital.
Midfield – I may not be Sarri’s biggest fan but I think the player that came with him from Napoli, Jorginho, is a decent player. He’s been made a scapegoat for Sarriball’s failure to materialise in English football. That’s totally unfair, it will be interesting how he plays if a new manager does come in. As per above N’golo Kante looks like being fit enough to play in the final and even at 80% fit, he’s fitter than most, so he has to start. Ross Barkley may have played himself into the starting XI with his semi-final performance. You could say it was just a cameo appearance, but nonetheless, he injected a presence and goal threat having replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek late on in the 90 minutes. He also scored the first penalty in the shoot-out.
Attack – Maybe Eden Hazard’s destiny, like Didier Drogba’s in 2012, will be to score the final penalty of the game giving Chelsea another European victory. It will be sad to see Hazard in blue for the final time but he’ll go with the blessing of most Chelsea fans. Proviso: If he does actually go. I do worry though that Sarri will play the Belgian in his least favoured position in this final game. To a degree, the ‘false 9’ worked against City in the League Cup final and I reckon he’ll play it again in Baku. Chelsea’s options are then limited to just two players after that and both will have to play. With Hudson-Odoi out Willian and Pedro will play providers for whoever can get themselves into the penalty area.
For many reasons, it’s been a difficult season for everyone connected with Chelsea Football Club. Palpable discord barely scratches the surface. We can only hope that together we can all get behind the manager and team for this one last game.
Arrizabalaga, Azpilicueta, Luiz, Christensen, Alonso, Jorginho, Kante, Barkley, Hazard, Pedro, Willian
Follow Kevin on Twitter @techlec2000