UEFA Europa League: Together to Baku – almost

IF Arsenal or Chelsea were not up against a local rival, Baku and the Europa League might not mean as much as it probably does to the fans of both clubs – those that decide to make the journey to Azerbaijan.

The fact that the clubs have returned tickets to UEFA says a lot about the appeal of Baku as the stage for a major final. Not only does it show flagrant disregard for the welfare and contribution of the fans, but the fact that the governing body even contemplated Baku as an appropriate location suggests UEFA themselves have a relatively low opinion of the Europa.

Location, location, location

There needs to be more flexibility about final locations with a caveat or two installed into the process. UEFA should name two or three potential hosts, with the final decided upon before the semi-finals.

For example – Bayern Munich v Chelsea at the Allianz, Bayern v Dortmund at Wembley, United and Chelsea in Moscow. Given the importance of these games, the amount of prize money and the emotional intensity, surely final venues should be adjusted to ensure there are no “home” clubs and also that the traffic of people to watch the game can be handled comfortably? And that means going to places where policemen do not harass Arsenal fans in the street because they are wearing Mkhitarian shirts.

A general view of The Olympic Stadium, Baku.

Both clubs have had a rest after the final league game, the danger is they may have switched off – they haven’t had such a break since the summer of 2018.

There’s a certain irony in Chelsea and Arsenal meeting in this competition. Both have declined in the past couple of years. From Champions League certainties, they’ve become Europa candidates, although Chelsea have qualified for the premier competition by finishing a surprising third in 2018-19. Arsenal, who ended up fifth, can gain entry if they beat Chelsea.

Sarri bawl

Whatever happens, it seems almost certain that Chelsea will be dispensing with the services of Maurizio Sarri, who has taken the club to two finals and into third position – hardly a failure. However, Chelsea are Chelsea and despite the success they’ve had, the Blues’ fans are treating the campaign as disappointing. Sarri also has the air of someone who is not especially happy in his work – as demonstrated by his tantrum in training in Baku. Arsenal, meanwhile, have bedded-in Unai Emery this past year, but some sceptics are still questioning if the Gunners are any better off than they were under Wenger.

Arsenal have another reason to want to beat Chelsea – to deflect some of the attention on their north London neighbours, Tottenham, who play in the UEFA Champions League final on June 1 in Madrid. And of course, Arsenal still remember the 2003-04 season (how can they forget it?) when Chelsea deprived them of Champions League glory to add to their “invincible” league programme.

Both clubs have their own agendas, but you cannot help but feel the Europa League feels decidedly second-rate. First of all, although it is in Baku, it is another all-Premier clash at the end of a punishing season – this certainly takes some of the curiosity out of the match. Moreover, with maybe 10,000 fans between the two clubs, atmosphere might be hard to conjure up.

Trophy hauls in the Premier era (1992-2019)

  League FA Cup FL Cup Europe
Arsenal 3 8 1 1
Chelsea 5 7 4 3

Internationally made

But nobody should consider this is a cup final made in England. Starting from the top, there’s very little that’s English about either club – it is Russia v USA. Chelsea’s board, for example, has just one English director, with the rest from the US, Canada and Russia. The last English manager employed by either club goes way back – Chelsea were last in the hands of an English coach in 1996, Glenn Hoddle. Arsenal have to go back another 10 years and Don Howe.

Arsenal’s Frank McLintock holds the Fairs Cup aloft as he and his teammates are mobbed by ecstatic fans during their lap of honour. 1970.

As for the players, it is likely the two teams will start with one English player apiece – Ross Barkley for Chelsea and Ainsley Maitland-Niles for Arsenal. In the early 70s, when both clubs won their first European prizes, Chelsea’s 1971 Cup-Winners’ Cup side featured eight Englishmen, two Scots and an Irishman, while Arsenal’s 1970 Fairs Cup winners had seven English to four Scots.

Despite any misgivings, the game can still be one to remember. Chelsea and Arsenal, given their status and playing resources, were perhaps destined to meet in the final. Since the UEFA Cup became the Europa League, a Premier League club has been represented in five finals, starting with Fulham in 2009-10.

Top five leagues have provided 15 of the 22 finalists in that period, with Arsenal v Chelsea being the fifth time the final has been between clubs from the “five”. Spain have provided seven finalists, England six, Portugal four. Germany and France have provided one each but Italy has yet to see one of its clubs reach the final. Only twice has a league champion in the current season reached the final, Porto (2010-11) and Benfica (2013-14). The average position of a Europa League winner has been fourth.

There’s very little between the two teams, with Arsenal possessing an excellent front-line pairing in Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Chelsea – possibly for the last time – fielding Eden Hazard, who looks destined to join Real Madrid. Arsenal finished the season with four defeats in the last seven games, dropping to fifth. At the same time, Chelsea only won one of their last five games, but did enough to creep into third position.

Chelsea’s probable starting line-up cost the club around £ 270 million, while Arsenal’s edges towards £ 250 million. In terms of current valuations, Chelsea’s expected starting XI comes in at around € 565 million to Arsenal’s € 440 million (source: CIES).

Attritional

David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar of Chelsea with the UEFA Europa League trophy. 2013.

The final will be both teams’ 15thgame in the competition – the Europa, if nothing else, is an attritional road, all the way to Baku. The slogan, “Together to Baku”, however, now seems like a bad choice from the advertising team given Arsenal have had to leave their favourite Armenian behind.

Arsenal have, arguably, had a tougher road to Baku, with Rennes, Napoli and Valencia on their dance card. Chelsea made hard work of Frankfurt and Slavia Prague but underlined their strength with an 8-0 drubbing of Kyiv. Both Arsenal and Chelsea had painfully weak groups that made them look like over-aged kids in a junior class.

This has been a season where the financial clout of the Premier League has really come to the fore. Four of the top five clubs are in European finals – Manchester City, for all their domestic kleptomania, must feel they missed an opportunity. But nobody should see this as a sign of English strength, not even in the current, somewhat hostile environment in which we live. This has been an example of what wealth can buy, the mystery is why it has taken so long to get to this point.

Photos: PA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baku for the future – another case of Nyonism

The man who Geoff Hurst owes so much to...the famous "Russian" linesman...
The man who Geoff Hurst owes so much to…the famous “Russian” linesman…

So UEFA has announced its structure for Euro 2020, supposedly the most democratic competition to be launched by the grandees of Nyon.

Michel Platini wanted to spread the love and bring the Euros to the masses. Group games are going to be hosted across the continent and so, too, will the round of 16 and quarter-finals. And then, it’s over to Wembley with the semi-finals and final in the same location. Isn’t that what we had in 1976?

While it’s logical to have games in Glasgow, London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Munich, Budapest, Rome, Bucharest, Bilbao and so on, it’s strange that France and Portugal, even Greece, have been excluded. Admittedly, France will have its own competition in 2016, but then so, too, will Russia when it hosts the World Cup in 2018. St.Petersburg has its place in Euro 2020.

And oh yes, Baku has also been appointed as a venue. Baku, from that footballing hotbed of Azerbaijan. A place that is known as the “city of winds” and  is more synonymous with the World Chess Championship. It has certainly produced more top-class chess players than it has footballers. They like board games in Azerbaijan – backgammon is also incredibly popular.

UEFA, and FIFA, likes to open it arms wide and embrace emerging football markets. It’s not so easy for UEFA, but giving Baku four games in Euro 2020 goes a long way towards opening the door very wide. At the same time, you can’t help feeling that the country’s oil-rich economy, and the promise of petro-dollars for the game’s development could be at the root of their appointment. It’s difficult not to be cynical these days.

Baku’s selection is recognition of a country that is clearly on the up. In 2012, its potential for rapid growth earned it the tag the “Tiger of the Caucusus”. Likewise, Globalisation and World Cities Research Network ranked Baku as a “gamma level” Global City – in other words, it is on par with Glasgow, Marseille, Leeds and Ankara. In 2011, it was listed as the 48th most expensive city in the world and its Nizami Street is one of the most expensive across the globe. It may be a footballing backwater, but this is no down-at-heel nation.

A new stadium is being built for the occasion, but the current venue for any major sporting event is the Tofiq Bahramov stadium, named after the famous “Russian linesman” from the 1966 World Cup. In 1966, anything east of Hamburg was referred to as Russian and Azerbaijan, a country most people had never heard of in those days, was part of the Soviet Union.  This suggests that Bahramov is the most famous football personality the country has produced.

But what of local football? Top of the table at present in Azerbaijan is Inter Baki (Baku), who play in front of 300 people at their 8,000 capacity Inter Stadium. They’ve not won the title that often, just twice in fact. The leading club since 1992 has been Neftchi Baki, eight times champions in that period. They average around 2,000 for league games, which is higher than the 1,600 average for the Premier Division. Neftchi’s club crest features an oil platform, which tells you how ingrained the petrochemical industry is in the culture of Azerbaijan.

The national team is currently ranked 95th by FIFA, but is coached by none other than Berti Vogts. Azerbaijan’s most notable recent success was a shock win against Turkey in 2010.

All things considered, it looks inappropriate to award Azerbaijan with four games in Euro 2020. And it’s not just because of their status in the footballing hierarchy. Amnesty International and the European Parliament have both criticised Azerbaijan’s human rights record. Legislators called on the country to “undertake long-overdue human rights reforms without further delay and cease their harassment of civil society organisations, opposition politicians and independent journalists and lift the ban of public gatherings in Baku.” Amazingly, Monsieur Platini defended the UEFA decision. “Football is football, politics is politics,” he said. Do we hear the sound of heads being buried in the sands of the Caspian sea coastline?

Once again, football’s administrative bodies are found wanting when it comes to really important issues….