In September 2017 Baku, Azerbaijan won the bid to host the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Europa League’s final match in the city’s Olympic Stadium. The all-British final between Arsenal and Chelsea is set to take place May 29.
The site of this match-up is already a source of controversy. Both teams’ home stadiums are in London, a mere 10 kilometres apart. Holding the match in Baku requires devoted fans to travel over 4,500 kilometres to support their sides. This location has affected ticket sales. Arsenal and Chelsea expressed concern about the small number of tickets UEFA allocated to them for sale to fans—12,000 out of 70,000 seats total. However, with only 6,000 tickets purchased, the remaining half of the 12,000 tickets allocated to the London teams remain unsold. The cost of travel seems to be a major deterrent for fans to attend the match.
“We are really sorry for the problems [Arsenal and Chelsea’s] fans are encountering [in] trying to organise their journey to Baku,” the UEFA’s executive committee said in a recent statement. “Our experts are keenly working on this matter with a view to help find cheaper solutions for travelling fans.”
Regional politics has also had an impact on attendance by both fans and players. A territorial dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia has raised issues for Arsenal’s Armenian midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Mkhitaryan, despite having been assured safe entry into Azerbaijan by both the UEFA and Azerbaijan Football Association (AFFA), has decided not to attend the match. Several Arsenal fans with dual Armenian and British citizenship also had their visa applications denied. Arsenal reportedly brought this issue to the attention of UEFA.
The Arsenal and Chelsea rivalry is a historic London matchup between two consistent contenders for the Premier League title. In their most recent encounter, in January 2019, Arsenal defeated Chelsea 2–0. Arsenal finished the 2018-19 season fifth in the Premier League, while Chelsea finished third. This will be the 198th competitive meeting between the London clubs, with a record of 76 Arsenal wins, 63 Chelsea wins, and 58 draws. Many are predicting a Chelsea victory this year based on the club’s higher standing in the Premier League and a strong offense led by Belgian international, Eden Hazard. Arsenal’s offense has, however, also been in good form at the end of the Premier League season, with forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang winning the golden boot. This will not be an easy match for Chelsea defenders. Arsenal’s defense will have to recover from the slump they faced toward the end of this season if they hope to prevent a Chelsea victory.
To qualify for the Europa League final, Arsenal defeated Valencia CF in the semifinal round, while Chelsea prevailed over Eintracht Frankfurt. Despite their fluctuating performance at the beginning of the tournament, Arsenal has remained dominant in their games since the quarterfinal round, where they kept a clean sheet against Napoli. While Chelsea had a strong round of 16, defeating Dynamo Kyiv with an 8-0 aggregate, their momentum slowed in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. A penalty shootout against Eintracht Frankfurt in the semifinals ultimately sent them through to Baku.
In January, Arsenal’s Czech goalkeeper Petr Cech announced that he planned to retire from professional soccer at the end of the season. Cech played for Chelsea from 2004 to 2015, winning 13 major trophies, before signing with Arsenal in June 2015 and winning the Football Association Challenge (FA) Cup with the Gunners in 2017.
Along with being crowned Europa League champions, the winner of this game will be entered into the UEFA Supercup, where they will face the Champions League winner, and will be guaranteed a spot in next year’s Champions League tournament.