Baku's Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan plays host to the Europa League Final tonight as London rivals Chelsea & Arsenal slug it out for major European honours.
Chelsea's preparations have been disrupted by injury concerns, tension in the camp and a supposed tantrum by manager Maurizio Sarri during training, but they remain favourites to lift the crown. As they say, anything can happen in a cup final but it's a good idea to have a look at some of the key direct battles before making any judgments.
David Luiz vs Alex Lacazette 🇧🇷 🇫🇷
With Antonio Rudiger out, Luiz is the senior ball player at the back for Sarri's Blues side and with Alex Lacazette likely to be the focal point of Arsenal's attack, they will have many direct duels tonight. Lacazette's tendency to drop short to shield the ball and then bring in his fellow attackers, coupled with Luiz's proactive approach to winning the ball high up the pitch, could make this a decisive area.
Ross Barkley vs Lucas Torreira 🏴 🇺🇾
If N'Golo Kante doesn't make the match, as is widely expected, a lot of the box-to-box responsibilities and creative burden will fall to Ross Barkley. He's been inconsistent so far in his career but there's no doubting his ability to produce the unexpected match-winning moment. While Barkley attempts to pull rabbits out of hats, Arsenal's new defensive midfield general Lucas Torreira will be tasked with stopping him at all costs, breaking up the play and starting Arsenal's own attacks.
Olivier Giroud vs Laurent Koscielny 🇫🇷 🇫🇷
Just a year ago, Laurent Koscielny was being stretchered off at the Wanda Metropolitano in the Europa League semifinal against Atletico after rupturing his Achilles tendon. Fast forward a season and again he's the pillar of Arsenal's back four, although he's used sparingly because of injury concerned and ageing legs. His compatriot Olivier Giroud, Europa League top scorer this season, isn't a certainty to start but if he does, the pair's aerial battle could be pivotal. Giroud's prowess in the air and Koscielny's aggression should make it a tasty tussle.
Eden Hazard vs Ainsley-Maitland Niles 🇧🇪 🏴
Chelsea's Golden Boy is likely to make his swansong in Baku for the Blues after seven years at the club, and he would love to go out on a high. If Hazard is deployed on the left wing in favour of a false 9 role, his direct opponent will be pacy converted midfielder Ainsley Maitland- Niles. With Hector Bellerin out, he isn't Arsenal's first pick at right back and that might be an area where Hazard can gain a telling ascendancy.
Jorginho vs Mesut Özil 🇮🇹 🇩🇪
Arsenal's 2-0 defeat of Chelsea in the Premier League in the season just completed was in large part down to their high-energy pressing game that starved Chelsea's orchestrator Jorginho of the time and space that he craves in order to dictate a football match. The key difference here is that Aaron Ramsey was tasked with the number 10 role for Arsenal that day. The Welshman's absence through injury hampers Arsenal's ability to replicate that blueprint, but the experience and know-how at the top level should see a languid Özil take his place in the starting lineup. Their approach will have to be modified in this regard, but the way that Jorginho combats Ozil's unpredictable threat could prove conclusive.
If Özil is used off the bench, it will be the industrious Nigerian Alex Iwobi that will assume the central creative role.
The stage is set.
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