BC-SOC--Europa League Final-England’s Week
Forget Barcelona, forget Real Madrid. This is England’s week.
After years of Spanish domination in Europe’s top club competitions, England has done what no other nation has done before. Both the Champions League and the Europa League finals are all-English affairs.
Before Liverpool and Tottenham clash in Madrid for the title of Europe’s best team Saturday, Arsenal and Chelsea fight for the Europa League crown in Azerbaijan on Wednesday. The Premier League’s strength in depth is all the more impressive when you consider that its champions, Manchester City, are not even involved.
Ahead of the Europa League clash, much of the focus has been on Azerbaijan’s fitness to host, with Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan staying at home for political reasons and fans complaining of arduous travel.
The game at Baku’s Olympic Stadium will be the first major European final with video assistant referees, and the first Europa League match to use the system. A team of Italian and Polish officials will man the TV screens.
This could be a curious final for Petr Cech.
It is due to be the last game before retirement for the 37-year-old Arsenal goalkeeper.
Not only is it against the club where he had his greatest success, including Champions League and Europa League titles.
Chelsea could also be his next destination. Cech has not denied a report by broadcaster Sky Sports that he could return to the club next season as sporting director, only saying the decision on his future will come after the final, which was his “sole focus.”
But there have been calls — including from former Arsenal keeper David Seaman — for coach Unai Emery to start Bernd Leno in goal instead.
Win or lose, it could be all change at Chelsea next season.
Eden Hazard is widely considered to be eyeing a transfer out of the club this summer, while Maurizio Sarri may not be given another season to make his mark as coach.
Sarri was given a mission to reshape the club in his attack-focused “Sarriball” style when he arrived from Napoli last year.
Third place in the Premier League is a solid feat, but finishing 25 points off second place is less impressive. Likewise, a European final does not hide the fact Chelsea has been oddly brittle under Sarri at times — a 6-0 defeat to Manchester City and a 4-0 loss to Bournemouth will live long in the memory.
With two years remaining on his contract, Sarri says he will speak to the club after the final “to know if they are happy with me.”
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPOTS
Winning the Europa League final would not just cap a solid debut season for Emery, a Europa League specialist who won the competition three times with Sevilla. It would also put Arsenal into the group stage of the Champions League for the first time since 2016-17.
Defeat would mean another Europa League campaign next season for Emery.
Chelsea has already qualified for the Champions League by finishing third in the Premier League so, should it win on Wednesday, the extra Champions League group-stage spot will be handed to Lyon. That’s because Lyon finished third in the French league, the highest-ranked national league without three automatic spots in the group stage.
AP Global Soccer Writer Rob Harris contributed to this report.
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