Europa Final: It’s Defining Verdict for Emery, Sarri in Baku Tonight
The 6,000-mile round trip to Baku for the climax of the Europa League will deliver the defining verdict on their first seasons in charge for Arsenal Manager Unai Emery and his Chelsea counterpart Maurizio Sarri this evening.
According to BBC, the final will shape how their campaigns are viewed – although for Italian Sarri there is no guarantee that even victory will see him handed a second season at Stamford Bridge.
A major European trophy is at stake. Sarri’s job may be at stake. And Arsenal’s future is at stake, as they know only victory will lead them to the riches of the Champions League next season.
So who does this confrontation in far-flung Azerbaijan mean most to – Unai Emery or Maurizio Sarri?
The final may mean little more than a successful conclusion to a complex, contradictory season for the chain-smoking Italian, who arrived at Chelsea after his work at Napoli drew glowing references from the cream of the coaching crop, including Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola.
It may yet rank as only something Sarri leaves for Chelsea to remember him by.
Sarri’s season at Chelsea has been conducted against the backdrop of discontent among supporters who grew tired of his predictable substitutions.
Those reached a low point in February when his go-to replacement of Mateo Kovacic with Ross Barkley (it was vice versa at various other points), was greeted with ironic laughter and chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” from his own fans during the FA Cup fifth-round loss to Manchester United at Stamford Bridge.
It came after a 4-0 defeat at Bournemouth and a 6-0 mauling by Manchester City and just before goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga’s open challenge to Sarri’s authority when he refused to be substituted in the Carabao Cup final before a penalty shootout which Chelsea.
The much-vaunted ‘Sarri ball’, which was meant to be high-paced attacking football combining pressing and short, quick passing exchanges, has turned out to be largely tedious and relatively easy to rumble by teams of higher class.
He has also alienated Chelsea fans by marginalising N’Golo Kante, regarded as the world’s finest holding midfielder, on the right of a three-man midfield to accommodate his favoured son Jorginho in the Frenchman’s favoured position.
The big-money buy from Serie A is simply not in Kante’s class as that sort of operator.
Sarri’s use (or lack of use) of precocious teenager Callum Hudson-Odoi was also an issue, with England manager Gareth Southgate seeming to show more belief in his talents.
As a result of this lack of game time, it seemed this outstanding young winger was determined to leave the club. A serious Achilles tendon injury has put a stop to that for now.
Their win percentage in the Premier League was 55.3% from 38 games, with exactly the same number of wins, 21, as Emery. The overall ratio was a highly respectable 61.3% from 62 games so far.
Sarri’s problems, however, have extended beyond the field of play.
There has been no connection between him and Chelsea’s fans, with not even the presence of Stamford Bridge legend Gianfranco Zola helping form a bond.
And yet, if he wins in Baku, Sarri may be able to present a strong case to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich that he has actually fulfilled his remit and deserves to build on the last 12 months.
If a crystal ball of Sarri’s season in August had predicted a third-placed finish, the League Cup final only being lost on penalties to the team that completed the domestic clean sweep and an appearance in a major European final, surely this would have been deemed acceptable?
If he had achieved this at other clubs there would be talk of a contract extension, not of a parting of the ways.
Chelsea finished fifth under Antonio Conte last season and although the FA Cup was won, his relationship with the club’s hierarchy had fractured.
Would anyone else have done any better this season? No-one marked Chelsea down as serious title contenders but they finished above Tottenham and behind two of the outstanding Premier League teams in recent memory.
This Europa League final means much to Sarri – whether it means a lot for him at Chelsea or somewhere else remains to be seen.
If Chelsea win, he can give Abramovich tangible evidence of his success and may even persuade the Russian that an alternative, such as Frank Lampard, is a romantic vision rather than a realistic one.
If that is not enough for Chelsea, the sight of Sarri holding the Europa League trophy aloft will confirm in the eyes of Serie A giants such as Juventus, Roma or even AC Milan, that this is a coach of serious substance who should be given the appreciation in his homeland he may feel he has never been afforded in England.
For Emery, the final means a return to familiar territory for the man who has made this tournament a spectacular speciality – winning it three times in succession at Sevilla, the last time when impressively outmanoeuvring Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool in Basel in 2015.
Emery has shown the sure touch of an expert in guiding Arsenal past Napoli and Valencia in the knockout stages and, from a personal point of view, winning in Baku would simply strengthen the confidence of the Gunners’ hierarchy that they have the right man to move the club forward after the 22-year reign of Arsene Wenger.
In many respects, however, overcoming Chelsea tonight will mean more to Arsenal’s long-term future than to Emery’s, who will be given time and patience to shape the club irrespective of the outcome in Azerbaijan.
Arsenal risk falling further adrift of the Premier League elite if they are out of the Champions League for another season – especially with neighbours Spurs, who lived in their shadow for so long, contesting the Champions League final with Liverpool in Madrid on Saturday.
For Emery, securing his status as the man to win Arsenal’s first European trophy since the 1994 European Cup Winners’ Cup will increase his own confidence and that of those who employed him.
To claim the trophy for the fourth time as a manager would also be a remarkable personal feat.
It would, crucially, mean his first Arsenal campaign would be regarded as a success on two fronts – a trophy in the cabinet and a return to European football’s top table after the stale end to the Wenger era