By Kunle Adedoyin
Chelsea will this evening face Arsenal in the Europa League final in a controversial venue, Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.
The buildup to the all-English clash has been marred by the grumbling against the UEFA’s choice of venue, which is almost 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometres) from London by the Caspian Sea.
The match is the starter in a banquet of European finals dominated by England, with Liverpool taking on Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Champions League final in Madrid on Saturday.
However, there will not be much of an English atmosphere at the Baku Olympic Stadium when the match kicks off at 11:00pm (1900 GMT), with reportedly only around 6,000 tickets sold by the clubs for a ground which holds almost 70,000.
The distances and costs involved and the difficulty in getting to Baku have prevented more fans from travelling.
On the field, Arsenal will be handicapped by the absence of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He decided not to travel because of fears over his safety due to an ongoing political dispute between Azerbaijan and his home country, Armenia.
“It is not in my hands. They have their reason to play here and I must respect this decision,” Arsenal coach Unai Emery said on Tuesday.
“Yes, I prefer to play with our supporters here. I’d prefer it if a lot of supporters from us and from Chelsea could come here from London, but it’s difficult.”
Chelsea’s preparations has been fraught, with rumours swirling that not only is Hazard leaving for Madrid but that coach Maurizio Sarri could go to coach-less Juventus.
The tension bubbled to the surface in a training session open to the media on Tuesday when Sarri stormed off the pitch at the Olympic Stadium with TV cameras capturing the moment when the Italian angrily tossed away his baseball cap as he headed for the tunnel shortly after David Luiz and Gonzalo Higuain had clashed.
Sarri had earlier refused the Juventus vacancy, saying: “I have a contract with Chelsea for two years.
“So, first of all, I will speak with Chelsea but this is not the moment.”
He said winning the final would turn a “very good season” into a “wonderful” one.
But some critics are quick to argue however that a third-place Premier League finish 26 points adrift of champions Manchester City and a chance of winning Europe’s second-tier trophy is unsatisfactory for a club with huge Russian-backed budget.
Emery has seemed far more serene although the stakes are certainly high for the Gunners. After finishing fifth in the Premier League, two points behind Chelsea in third and one point behind Tottenham, Arsenal has to win to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
“For a club like Arsenal we have to be in the Champions League. It’s an amazing and important game because we want to give us, the fans and the club the Champions League back,” said Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Arsenal has not been in a European final since 2006 and has not won a continental trophy since lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup 25 years ago.
In Emery, though, they have a coach who won this competition three years running with Sevilla.
“All teams’ first objective is to play to win a title — I think that is the first objective, and then there is also the fact that it helps you to achieve the Champions League,” said Emery, the former PSG coach.
Emery is still to win a major trophy, but he has already steered the Blues to a return to the Champions League and also took them to the League Cup final, where they lost on penalties to Manchester City.
Whatever happens to Hazard, it will definitely be the last game for Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech, who will retire afterwards at the age of 37. A Chelsea great who crossed London in 2015, Cech has been tipped for a return to Stamford Bridge in some capacity.
“I can speak about Petr Cech a lot, but above all he’s a great man, a great professional,” Emery said. “I want to do something important, with him playing or not playing.”
Bernd Leno is the other option in goal, while Chelsea are sweating on the fitness of key midfielder N’Golo Kante.
“Kante has a very little problem with his knee. The problem is the timing, but we are trying,” said Sarri.