A gruelling season of transition and attrition for both Chelsea and Arsenal will culminate in an all England Europa league final.
The match will determine if Arsenal will be playing Champions League football or return to the second tier of European football next season.
Not since Wolverhampton Wonderers and Tottenham Hotspur contested the very first Uefa Cup final in 1972, have two English teams met in the final of the competition.
This will be Chelsea and Arsenal’s 63rd and 59th match respectively this season, undoubtedly a tough initiation for Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery who have seen their resources stretched due to the torturous relentlessness in their fixture scheduling.
Despite this, both London teams have impressed for considerable spells throughout the season – Chelsea were the last team standing in Europe’s top five leagues to suffer a defeat after opening the season with 16 matches unbeaten while Arsenal overcame a tough start with an impressive 22 match unbeaten run.
Since then, inconsistency and ineptitude have plagued both teams at critical moments of the season with Chelsea 6-0 shellacking at the hands of champions Manchester City and Crystal Palace’s assured victory at the Emirates against Arsenal being particularly notable in their ignominy.
The prize on the line for Chelsea is yet another European title (would be there third this decade) and for Arsenal a coveted ticket into the Champions League next season.
However, for the respective managers the final represents different things. For Sarri it would be vindication and glory, while for Unai Emery it would be a chance for redemption and salvation. So who needs the trophy more?
The former Napoli boss has been arguably the most divisive manager in the premier league this season with the Italian’s highly regarded ‘Sarriball’ falling short of expectation.
Critics have rightly identified a debilitating stubbornness in Sarri’s tactical approach that brought its nadir in crushing defeats to Manchester City (6-0) and Bournemouth (4-0) which are among the worst losses under Roman Abramovich’s ownership.
They also point to consistently uninspiring substitutions, which is reflective of a manager who has rarely utilised the full depth of his squad by overplaying key players and in some cases continuing to persist with underperforming starters.
Then there is of course the discontent with Jorginho’s presence as the team’s conductor and metronome at the base of the midfield, a position that has been blessed historically with some of the best destroyers in the league, not least N’golo Kante.
In short, this very expansive, unimposing and at times naïve Chelsea team, has been one many blues fans have not witnessed for many years now.
The once battle hardened pragmatism and spirit of indomitability that was forged under Jose Mourinho has seemingly dissipated with the arrival of one man and his unyielding vision.
However, some further context ultimately lends us important perspective in this assessment of change and progress.
In fulfilling Roman Abramovich’s long yearning dream of seeing stylish, thrilling football which also wins trophies at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea supporters should revel in the knowledge that much of the groundwork has already been done.
It was always going to be a difficult season with three weeks of pre-season and barely a week with those key players participating in the latter stages of last summer’s World Cup.
The requisite time was not there last pre-season to even get close to perfecting a style of football as intricate and expansive as Sarriball.
The football may have been difficult to watch at times this season and some of the toothless defeats have been unacceptable.
However, sometimes that is the cost of committing to a change that transcends the here and now, but to a long-term vision.
Perhaps a long term vision that is not too dissimilar to the philosophical transformation from George Graham’s Arsenal to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal that has comfortably met the challenges of modernity with a modern stadium and a brand and identity that attracts the purists of the game.
It is highly unlikely that Sarri will be able to replicate such a transformative feat as Wenger, but somebody needs to start believing that this is possible one day and it needs to start with everyone associated with the club, not least its most important stakeholder- the fans.
There needs to be patience and an understanding that change is happening and that this is a process that requires its due time and a resilience to endure the challenges associated with forging a new, lasting identity.
Sarri has by no means been perfect, but given the resources he has had and the challenge that is confronting him, navigating a tense league run in to secure a third finish and potentially win a maiden trophy as a professional manager are achievements worth lauding.
That would be vindication for a manager who has shown considerable resilience and potential in a season that saw Chelsea defeat back to back champions Manchester City and run them very close in the League Cup final.
It is this upside that might just cement Sarri’s future whether the transfer ban goes through or not, as Chelsea also finally have a manager that has not been afraid to unleash the youth within the ranks as Ruben Loftus Cheek and Callum Hudson Odoi’s breakthrough seasons attest to.
Above all, winning the Europa league would vindicate the direction that Sarri’s football is taking Chelsea, as a platform to build from next season.
The former Sevilla manager has been a serial winner of this competition with three consecutive victories from 2014-2016.
How that will play out in Baku against a manager in Maurizio Sarri who has yet to lift a trophy, will be intriguing, but not as intriguing as the outcome from a board level of a trophy-less and Champions League-less Arsenal when bitter rivals Tottenham might just be about to secure the title itself on June second.
Emery’s first season at the Emirates has been a rollercoaster of sorts – quite a low point to begin with, with defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, and then a wave of optimism throughout a 22-game unbeaten run which ended in the league with sharp descent into mediocrity.
Even during the tail end of Arsene Wenger’s time, Arsenal had the knack of finishing off the season strongly to usually secure a crucial Champions League position.
There is the sense that Emery and Arsenal have lost a huge opportunity at the end of the season in the league to secure automatic qualification for the competition.
Limp, if not shambolic performances against Wolves, Crystal Palace, Leicester and Brighton have precipitated an unenviable scenario where Arsenal must win the Europa league to secure their main objective of playing champions league football next season.
It is a sad indictment on the club that it was Arsenal who were in the driver’s seat to be sitting in exactly Chelsea’s position only a few weeks ago.
Finishing third in the league and enjoying preparations for a European final without the type of must win pressure that can sometimes suffocate rather than inspire a team, would have been the ideal preparation for a trophy Arsenal has yet to win.
This stodginess and failure to maintain any semblance of composure is understandable in the sense that Arsenal’s defence has been so hapless, but then again the firepower in attack is there in golden boot winner Pierre Emerick Aubameyang as well as the effervescent Alexandre Lacazette.
How this Arsenal attack along with the creative powers of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey have not been able to conjure a top-four finish must surely be a question that cannot be asked to strictly the players.
Much like Arsene Wenger’s lack of tactical inspiration and variety in his final years brought about a staleness and sterility to Arsenal’s football at times, Unai Emery’s endless tinkering has achieved something similar.
The lack of clarity behind either supporting a strike partnership up front between Aubameyang and Lacazette or settling on a back three or back four are some of the major structural problems Arsenal have suffered from all season.
There is no surprise that there is such defensive instability as there is a lack of cohesion and understanding at the back which stems from Emery’s tactical fidgeting.
Why the same criticism that Sarri suffered from for not being pragmatic enough should be directed at Emery as well, as his insistence on playing out from the back without the central defenders with the requisite technical qualities has been disastrous.
One wonders whether a more disciplined and pragmatic approach would have propelled Arsenal to greater things this season in the knowledge that more suitable players will be available to purchase in the transfer window, especially given the ostensible lack of scrutiny and pressure the Arsenal board seem to inflict on their managers compared to a team like Chelsea.
Ultimately, regardless of any mistakes or missed opportunities, the Europa league represents a chance for redemption and salvation for Emery in the sense that the primary objective of playing champions league football is met, as well as the collection of an elusive European trophy for Arsenal.
This could be the catalyst for building something more Emery-esque next season with some significant financial backing from the club off the back of one of the most important cup finals in the clubs history.
Even if Emery’s job may not be directly on the line in this final, the desperation surrounding Arsenal’s last chance saloon is a collective sentiment that is far too inducing to not consider Unai Emery’s fourth Europa League final the most important of his career.