London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal meet in an all-English Europa League final on Wednesday, 2,500 miles from home.
There is speculation that, win or lose in Baku’s Olympic Stadium, it could be Blues boss Maurizio Sarri’s final game in charge.
He refused to discuss reports linking him with Italian side Juventus on the eve of the final, 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.”
But, as he reflected on the past 11 months, he suggested his feelings for his players will play a part if he does have a decision to make about his future.
“For me, at the beginning of the season it was really very difficult to understand my players, to understand the mentality,” Sarri explained.
“But after a very difficult month in January, in February they started to change, I think. Or probably I changed – I don’t know.
“In this moment, I love them because I have 20, 22 wonderful men, and wonderful players. So now I am really very happy with them.
“Of course, I have to consider it for the future, and I have to consider that I love English football and I love the Premier League.”
‘Arsenal’s first target is a trophy – not Champions League place’
Sarri, 60, has never won a major honour as a manager, while his Arsenal counterpart Unai Emery has won this competition three times with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016.
His current club has had rather less success on the continent, however.
While Chelsea won the Europa League in 2013, a year after their triumph in the Champions League, Arsenal have not clinched a European title since they won the now obsolete European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994.
Emery insists ending that 25-year wait is his first objective in Azerbaijan, despite the game also being his side’s last chance of making next season’s Champions League after a two-year absence – with qualification likely to significantly increase their summer transfer funds.
“There are two targets here but the most important target for us is to win a title,” the Spaniard said on Tuesday.
“The second target is to help us to achieve the Champions League.”
Emery does not feel the game means less to Chelsea because the Blues are already in the Champions League after finishing third in the Premier League table.
“Each title is very important for us, and for Chelsea too,” Emery added. “We want to enjoy this moment, for our fans and also for ourselves. Chelsea will have the same idea.”
Blues defender David Luiz agreed when he faced the media later on Tuesday, adding: “This competition is not about the Champions League.
“It is about a big trophy – everybody wants to win this competition when they start out in it, and we want a repeat of 2013, with a win.”
Kante will face late fitness test
There is last-minute work going on all over Baku ahead of the final, with workers planting flowers in fan parks and painting roads outside the airport the day before the game.
Chelsea are also leaving it late before deciding if France midfielder N’Golo Kante is fit enough to face the Gunners, after he suffered a knee injury on Saturday.
“It is not as serious injury but the problem is the timing,” Sarri said. “He is 50-50 at the moment. We will try to recover him, but we don’t know.”
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are already ruled out, and Kante’s absence would leave Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley as Chelsea’s only three fit midfielders.
“We are in trouble with the midfield,” Sarri added. “At the moment we have only three midfielders for three positions.
“For us N’Golo is very, very important. He is the only defensive midfielder that we have so we are trying to recover him and we will try on Wednesday morning.”
Cech must wait to find out about farewell
Arsenal are definitely without Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who decided not to play for security reasons because of a dispute between his country and Azerbaijan.
Injured midfielder Aaron Ramsey has already played his last match for the club before his summer move to Juventus but Emery must decide whether veteran goalkeeper Petr Cech will start against his former side in his final game before retirement.
“I want to tell the players the starting XI first, and I want to tell them on Wednesday,” Emery explained.
“I speak about Petr a lot but above all he is a great man and a great professional. His behaviour in his year with us has been amazing.
“I want to do something important with him in his last match. This was my conversation with him – I told him ‘I want to do something important with you in the last moment in you career, playing or not playing’.”
Emery said reports that Cech, 37, will become Chelsea’s sporting director in the summer will not influence his decision.
“He can start or not start, I have to decide, but he deserves trust because his career says to us he is a gentleman,” he said.
“Really, how can we not believe in him?”
Can Chelsea ruin Arsenal’s parade?
The build-up to the final has been overshadowed by the problems fans of both sides have had getting to Baku.
There could be as few as 5,000 Chelsea and Arsenal fans inside the 70,000-capacity stadium, with the rest of the crowd made up of locals, neutrals, sponsors and Uefa dignitaries.
“It is not in my hands,” said Emery.
“They have arranged to play here and I must respect that decision. Of course, I would prefer it if a lot of supporters for us and Chelsea can come here, but it is difficult for them.”
Sarri added: “I am really very disappointed. We do this job for this kind of match so we hope to see our fans here.
“I don’t know what to say other than we will try to win, for us and also for them.”
Unlike Chelsea, Arsenal have already released plans to hold a trophy parade – in Islington on Thursday – if they are the team who triumphs.
Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta said: “They have to plan for this, but hopefully we can ruin it. Our job is to play the game and to win the trophy.
“We didn’t plan a parade but that doesn’t mean we are not hungry and determined to win the trophy.
“We will give everything. It is the last game of a long season.
“When you have a trophy to play for in the middle, you get energy from everywhere and hopefully all together we can get our hands on it.”
- Arsenal against Chelsea will be the second all-English UEFA Cup/Europa League final in history, after Tottenham against Wolves in the UEFA Cup final in 1972.
- This is the 198th meeting in all competitions between Arsenal and Chelsea but only the third in European competition – they met in the 2003-04 Champions League quarter-final, with the Blues progressing 3-2 on aggregate.
- Arsenal vs Chelsea will be the first fixture to played in the FA Cup final, League Cup final and a major European final.
- This will be both Arsenal and Chelsea’s sixth major European finals – only Man Utd (7) and Liverpool (14 – including 2019 Champions League) have reached more among English clubs.
- This final will be third time two teams from the same nation have faced in the Europa League final, after Porto v Braga in 2011 and Atletico Madrid v Athletic Club in 2012.
- Both Arsenal and Chelsea have won 11 Europa League games this season – only three teams have ever won more major European games in a single season (excluding qualifiers); Real Madrid in 2001-02 (12), Porto in 2010-11 (12) and Atletico Madrid in 2011-12 (13).
- Azerbaijan will be the 24th different country to host a major European final and the third consecutive year a country will host a major final for the first time – Wales for the 2016-17 Champions League final and Ukraine for the 2017-18 Champions League final.
- Arsenal have lost four of their five major European finals, with their only victory coming in the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup against Parma; they’ve lost each of their last three, losing in the 1995 Cup Winners’ Cup, 2000 UEFA Cup and 2006 Champions League finals.
- In all European competition, Arsenal have faced opponents from 27 different nations and beaten teams from 26 of those countries, with the only exception being against English clubs.
- Arsenal manager Unai Emery has won the Europa League more often than any other manager, winning it three times in 2014, 2015 and 2016 with Sevilla.
- Arsenal’s Unai Emery could become only the fourth manager to win the UEFA/Europa League with two different teams, after Giovanni Trapattoni (Juventus & Inter Milan), Jose Mourinho (Porto & Man Utd) and Rafael Benitez (Valencia & Chelsea).
- If Arsenal win this match, only Giovanni Trapattoni (5) will have won more major European finals than Unai Emery (4), while only three other managers would have won as many as four with a 100% record in each final – Nereo Rocco, Bob Paisley and Jose Mourinho.
- Arsenal’s last eight Europa League goals have been scored by either Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (4) or Alexandre Lacazette (4).
- Chelsea have won four of their five major European finals (2x Cup Winners’ Cup/1x Champions League/1x Europa League). Among English teams, only Man Utd (5) and Liverpool (8) have won more major European finals.
- Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud has scored 10 Europa League goals this season, the most by a Blues player in a single European season (excluding qualifiers) and the joint-most by a French player in major European competition in a season – Nestor Combin in the 1963-64 Cup Winners’ Cup and Just Fontaine in the 1958-59 European Cup also scored 10.
- Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri is the first Italian to manage in a UEFA Cup/Europa League final since Alberto Malesani in 1999, who won the trophy with Parma that year.
- The two previous Italians to manage an English club in a major European final have managed Chelsea to victory – Gianluca Vialli in the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup final and Roberto Di Matteo in the 2012 Champions League final.