Arsenal, Chelsea square off in Baku

London: London rivals and Chelsea will square off in an all-English UEFA Europa League final in Azerbaijan in what has turned out to be a landmark year for the footballing nation in Europe’s top club competitions. The match will kick off at the 70,000 capacity Baku Olympic stadium at 00.30 (IST) on Wednesday.

This is the first time in history that finals of the Champions League and Europa League will feature teams from the same country – Liverpool take on Tottenham Hostpur in Madrid on June 1 for the Champions League trophy.

Much of the focus ahead of the Europa League final was on Azerbaijan’s fitness to host, with Arsenal midfielder and Armenian national Henrikh Mkhitaryan staying at home for political reasons and fans complaining of arduous travel. Mkhitaryan’s participation had been in doubt due to the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and his native country. However, the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) said in a statement that it saw no reason for the decision.

“We very much regret this unwarranted decision taken, as we understand, collectively by Arsenal, the player and his family,” the AFFA said. The statement added that Azerbaijan had provided all the necessary guarantees required by UEFA to ensure Mkhitaryan’s safety. “It’s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it,” Mkhitarya said last week.

Fans from London have been deterred by high travel costs and both Arsenal and Chelsea have reportedly failed to sell their full allocations of 6,000 tickets. That number was already unusually low for a major final in a 68,000-seat stadium. Neither UEFA nor Azerbaijani authorities have said how many tickets have been sold.

The two sides’ only other European meeting came at the Champions League quarterfinals in 2004, when the Blues won 3-2 on aggregate. Arsenal lead their overall head-to-head with 77 wins and 63 losses. The Gunners have lost just one of their last eight meetings. They [Arsenal] are very dangerous as a team in the offensive phase,” said Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea coach. “They are aggressive and able to press well in the opposition half, so it’s not easy to play against them.”