- London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal must go to Baku for the Europa League final
- UEFA should have chosen a more hospitable and affordable venue for supporters
- If Mauricio Pochettino was a player he’d have been castigated for his behaviour
- Why does he keep talking about his future — or lack of one — as Tottenham boss?
The identity of the Europa League quarter-finalists was known on Thursday, March 14. By the following evening, UEFA should have been able to announce the venue for the final. Somewhere reachable; somewhere the fans could enjoy. Not Baku. Nowhere remote, or inhospitable. Nowhere prohibitively expensive.
There are 18 countries and 1,725 miles between the points UEFA could choose from. They are lying when they say the woe of Baku and back is not on them.
By the time the round of 16 concluded, UEFA knew the area covered by the quarter-finalists. It ranged from Lisbon in the west to Prague in the east, London in the north to Naples in the south. And at that point, UEFA knew too that the nearest Baku would be to any of the possible finalists was 2,227 miles away.
Chelsea and Arsenal will contest this season’s Europa League final at Baku’s Olympic Stadium
Slavia Prague were then knocked out. Even so, had UEFA already decreed that the final was being held in Vienna, say, 156 miles from the Czech capital, there would be no argument whoever ended up there.
Vienna is approachable. So is most of Germany, Spain, or France – and these are all countries with stadium options. It should not take close to two years to find a venue for a final.
Yet Baku was chosen on September 20, 2017. We already know the venue for the 2020 final: Gdansk in Poland. This month we will discover who hosts in 2021: either Tbilisi in Georgia, or Seville.
And for what? So UEFA can conjure up some branding and a meaningless slogan. ‘Together to Baku,’ is the one for this year. Yet who is together to Baku, considering the limitations of the venue? Together in a car, six hours from Tbilisi maybe. Together via Istanbul. Together watching from the sofa because tickets are so scarce.
The qualifying teams, Arsenal and Chelsea, have been told they will only get 6,000 seats each in a 68,700 capacity stadium, and this is now being blamed on the main airport only being able to handle 15,000 visitors a day. And UEFA found that out now? Of course not.
One of the advantages of a two-year lead time is the compilation of evaluation reports; detailed analyses of venue logistics, including international transportation. Meaning UEFA knew of Baku’s flaws and the unavoidable restrictions on tickets but ignored it.
The venue holds 68,700 fans but Arsenal and Chelsea have been given just 6,000 tickets each
They probably figured that once the final was taken so far east, the numbers travelling would be significantly down anyway.
The only argument for holding finals in remote locations concern inclusion. Azerbaijan is part of UEFA too. Why shouldn’t it get a little gravy? And that much is true. Yet the final venue should always play sympathetically to the needs of supporters.
This year, Krasnodar and Zenit St Petersburg from Russia were in the Europa League’s last 16. Had either got through, most of eastern Europe could have been considered among the options for a final, even Moscow. And yes, Arsenal and Chelsea to Moscow, would still have been a trek. Yet there would have been more than 6,000 tickets each at the end of it, and flights and entry routes would have been less problematic.
This is a final constructed with the least thought, even for the playing participants, given that it has now been revealed that Henrikh Mkhitaryan of Arsenal might not be able to get a visa, due to Armenia’s war footing with Azerbaijan.
How could UEFA award such a fixture to a city without first establishing that all players would be able to gain access? That alone should have been a red flag in 2017 – or at least sorted out months ago when it was clear that Arsenal’s presence in the final was very possible.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan may not be able to get a visa due to Armenia’s war footing with Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan has lots of lovely oil money and, looking back, this has been on the agenda since UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin took the job. He floated the idea in his first major interview, in 2016 when discussing potential final venues. ‘To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan for example is almost the same or the same as if you go to New York,’ he said. ‘For the fans it’s no problem.’
At the time, the headlines were about UEFA taking the Champions League final to the American continent – and that will come if the elite clubs get their way, don’t worry – but we all missed Baku as a prior staging post. You’ve got to love that ‘no problem’, too. There speaks a man who hasn’t worried about the cost of watching football in decades.
Ask Arsenal or Chelsea’s fans if Baku is no problem. OK, two years too late, but it might inform the decision over Tbilisi in 2021.
It is a myth that UEFA, or any remotely competent organisation, cannot organise an event in two months. If it goes the distance, baseball’s World Series completes its post-season play-offs two or three days before the finals begin.
In 2012, San Francisco Giants played St Louis Cardinals for the National League pennant on Monday, October 22. Having won, the World Series opened with the Giants facing Detroit Tigers on Wednesday, October 24. Yet the Tigers could just as easily have been playing in St Louis that day.
San Francisco and St Louis are 2,051 miles apart, and while Detroit to St Louis is 532 miles, San Francisco is 2,393 miles away. And yet it gets done. Travel is organised, tickets are sold, branding is designed – and the whole process is completed in 48 hours.
And no, because of the often enormous distances involved, baseball does not have the tradition of away support that exists in football. Yet there are still a few hardy souls who make the trip – and between two days and two years, there is surely middle ground. It’s called March.
Nothing can last for ever — not even City’s stranglehold
By the time Europe’s richest clubs had finished fashioning financial fair play into a protectionist’s charter, Manchester United, it seemed, were golden. Nothing would challenge their elite status. They had neutered the power of new money; they had insured themselves against the day Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down.
David Gill’s many years of politicking in football’s highest offices had been worth every meeting. Manchester United had football where they wanted it.
And then Ferguson left and the entire edifice crumbled. If Arsenal win the Europa League, United will be the only member of the Premier League’s elite six not in the Champions League next season. They did not qualify in 2014-15 or 2016-17 either. Since losing the Champions League final in 2011, the deepest they have gone into the competition is two quarter-final appearances, five years apart.
So those worrying that Manchester City’s rule is permanent after back-to-back titles and 198 points over two years, can relax. In football – certainly in English football – nothing is for ever.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany lifted the Premier League trophy again on Sunday
If Manchester United, a club with every advantage of size, wealth and privilege can be plunged into a relative wilderness, then City’s dominance cannot last, either. Think about it: unless Vincent Kompany scores the greatest goal of his career, they probably don’t win this title.
And then, one day, Pep Guardiola will depart. How do they replace him; indeed, who could replace him? City possess a more sophisticated executive strategy than United, but that doesn’t mean there will not be a Guardiola effect.
Manuel Pellegrini won the title in his first season, but went downhill after. Roberto Mancini ended up in a ruinously fractious relationship with the club, and a single title win. The new money ensures the dominance of super powers like Juventus and Bayern Munich is not such a factor in the English game.
Even if City were to win again next season, they would just be equalling the feats of Huddersfield (1923-26), Arsenal (1932-35), Liverpool (1981-84) and Manchester United (1998-2001 and 2006-09). Only a fourth victory would be unprecedented. As it is, City merely join a list of 11 clubs that have retained the title, on 25 occasions.
And it hasn’t happened for a while – not since Manchester United in 2008-09 – and never by winning a combined 198 points, so there is a lot of projection. Yet City were never this successful until Guardiola arrived.
And if he isn’t for ever, neither are they.
But City will not dominate English football forever, especially once Pep Guardiola leaves
What’s your point, Poch… or can we guess?
If Mauricio Pochettino was a Tottenham player he would have been widely castigated for his behaviour at the end of last week, Champions League final or not. Why does he keep talking about his future at Tottenham? More specifically, why does he keep talking about not having one?
In the aftermath of an incredible night in Amsterdam, suddenly it was all about Pochettino’s intentions again. What if Harry Kane or Christian Eriksen had used such a special moment to cast a shadow of doubt across the club? They would have been accused of self-indulgence, of selfishness, of undermining their team-mates.
Pochettino can hardly complain now, if he has to field more questions about his intentions. He can hardly be surprised if his motives are regarded cynically. A sabbatical? At a time when Manchester United might be regretting their latest managerial appointment? Well, isn’t that convenient?
If Daniel Levy makes good his promises of investment, there really isn’t a better club for Pochettino than Tottenham right now – yet frequently his public utterances serve only to challenge that view. What is going on? This seems as strategic as any of his game plans.
If Mauricio Pochettino was a player he would have been widely castigated for his behaviour
Who were the REAL bigots in Baker’s case?
There are not enough geniuses in broadcasting that we can afford to lose one. What was interesting about Danny Baker’s dismissal, however, is those who leapt to his defence. Everyone who knew him, and had a public platform.
Unable to give the benefit of the doubt: those who have never met him, or had no interest in his work, his interests or his personality.
On social media, many of those sitting in judgement made the connection between Baker’s south London roots, his love of football and his support for Millwall. It stood to reason that he would harbour horrid prejudices because he was a white, working class, Millwall fan. There’s a word for that, you know.
Broadcasting genius Danny Baker was sacked by the BBC after posting an offensive tweet
Surprise! Money breeds success
A Premier League money table has been published. It is made up of three categories: the equal share of £79.4m each, the money accrued from live TV broadcasts and the per place prize money. Of the 20 clubs, eight were in exactly the same position in the league table as the money table, 10 were one place off and two – Newcastle and Watford – swapped places two away.
The table in the Championship, by comparison, is random. Manchester City did not win the league solely because of money – Liverpool actually topped that table – but finance decides who gets in the mix.
At the end of what was quite probably the greatest title race in history, as Manchester City lifted the trophy, a dreadful refrain filled the Amex Stadium. ‘No time for losers,’ sang Freddie Mercury. Really? This, of all seasons? Hasn’t anyone at the Premier League been watching their own competition? How incredibly crass.
Out of Africa, trio who lit up the season
Many years ago, when Sky’s coverage of the Premier League was in its infancy, a very famous former England footballer was the studio guest. He was asked what he expected to see from a young winger, a talent on the rise, tipped for international honours. ‘Not much, really,’ he replied.
Pressed to explain, he offered the devastating analysis: ‘I don’t fancy the black lads much, when it gets cold.’ Suffice, he made two appearances on television that night: his first, and last.
We appear to have moved on since then. And for those that have not, perhaps the sight of three African players – Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – sharing this season’s Golden Boot with 22 goals each will persuade. It’s not where you’re from that counts; it’s where you’re at.
Mo Salah, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Sadio Mane (left to right) shared the Golden Boot
Who knew Toon had a plan?
Salomon Rondon is still unsure of his Newcastle future, despite scoring 11 goals this season and becoming the first Newcastle striker to win the club’s Player of the Year since Alan Shearer in 2003. Rondon is on loan from West Brom but, at 30, his age profile apparently goes against the club’s policy. Imagine – there’s a policy. Who knew?
Looking at Brighton’s team sheet, it is surely no surprise the club battled relegation. With the exception of Lewis Dunk, arguably no individual would get into a team in the top half. So Chris Hughton’s sacking is harsh.
Having said this, Brighton are not the first club to reject a pragmatic manager in the hope the switch to a more open style will bring with it excitement and improved results. Sometimes, however, the excitement is of a rather different kind to that imagined. Ask Stoke.
Lewis Dunk is the only Brighton player who would get into a top-10 Premier League team
Eden Hazard and Co continue preparations for the Europa League final against Arsenal
Eden Hazard and Co continue to count down the days until Baku as Maurizio Sarri prepares his Chelsea stars for the Europa League final against Arsenal
- Chelsea continued their preparations for the Europa League final next week
- Eden Hazard and his Blues team-mates were put through their paces at Cobham
- Maurizio Sarri is aiming to win his first bit of silverware as Chelsea manager
With the Europa League final under a week away, Maurizio Sarri is making sure that his players are fully prepared for his biggest game as Chelsea boss.
Eden Hazard, N’Golo Kante and the rest of their Blues team-mates were all put through their paces at Cobham on Thursday with the squad set to fly out to Azerbaijan in the coming days.
Eden Hazard (R) takes part in Chelsea’s training session on Thursday ahead of next week’s final
N’Golo Kante (right) chases down the ball as Conor Gallagher (L) and Ethan Ampadu watch on
Some of the Chelsea players celebrate a victory during a mini tournament during training
Reports suggested that Sarri’s position as manager has been put on the line depending on the result of next Wednesday’s final but the 60-year-old insists he will leave Chelsea immediately if that is the case.
The Italian’s future is uncertain after fans turned against him following a mid-season slump and he has emerged as a possible replacement for Max Allegri at Juventus.
Sarri parried questions on the Juventus connection on Wednesday, before claiming his mind is focused on next week’s final.
Gonzalo Higuain (right) has a shot closed down by England defender Gary Cahill (left)
Reserve goalkeeper Rob Green jumps to reach the ball as Olivier Giroud (left) asks for it
Chelsea’s Brazilian winger Willian looks to take on Jorginho during their training session
He made it clear his first season at Stamford Bridge should not hinge on the result of one game. ‘If the situation is like this I want to go immediately,’ said Sarri. ‘You cannot do 10 months of work and then I have to play for everything in 90 minutes.
‘It’s not the right way. You’re either happy about my work or you’re not happy.’
Chelsea finished third during Sarri’s first season as boss following poor runs of form from Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United.
Six days to go – Latest Arsenal Europa League final news and updates
There are now just six days to go before Arsenal and Chelsea face off in the Europa League final and a stream of reports are coming in thick and fast covering everything from team selection, fan issues, UEFA incompetence and so forth and we will now be doing a daily update of what is being reported.
Arsenal has sold just 3500 tickets out of their measly 6000 allocation with the rest being returned to UEFA. The ridiculous cost of getting to Baku has resulted in many fans being excluded from a major European trophy thanks to the utter incompetence of European footballs governing body.
Azerbaijan are playing the victim following Henrikh Mkhitaryan correct decision to not risk his safety. Azerbaijan’s ambassador to the UK has accused Mkhitaryan of “trying to make a political statement” by declining to visit a country that is effectively at war with his own nation.
Arsenal defender Shkodran Mustafi has made it clear the whole team wants to win the Europa League for Mkhitaryan following his decision to miss the final due to security concerns.
“It’s a shame for him not to be there, especially as he has often played on the way to the final, but our team has that in mind: We also want to win for Micki,” Mustafi told Kicker.
Arsenal fans have launched an online petition to have the Europa League final moved from Baku to Wembley Stadium. The reasoning behind the petition is the exclusion of Mkhitaryan making Baku an unfit location to hold a major European final
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has also come out in support of Mkhitaryan saying “We know it is a big shame but we respect his decision. It is not easy for him to go there because of political problems. It is a big shame but now we have one more motivation to win”
Former Arsenal legend David Seaman has urged Unai Emery not to pick Petr Cech over Bernd Leno for the final because he feels that the German is simply the better player.
David Seaman tells Unai Emery to copy Arsene Wenger with big Arsenal decision
Cech has been the regular goalkeeper in the Europa League for Arsenal since losing his spot as the Premier League No 1 to Bernd Leno midway through the group stage.
The 37-year-old is set to retire after Wednesday’s match in Baku and reports claim he is set to become a sporting director at former club and final opponents Chelsea this summer.
That has led to many Arsenal fans claiming Cech should not play, though the former Czech Republic international has tweeted saying he is completely focused on the match ahead.
Seaman is surprised Cech’s proposed new job has been leaked but says he would have picked Leno in the final before hearing the news.
And Seaman referred to how former Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger picked him ahead of Richard Wright in the 2002 FA Cup final despite not playing in previous rounds.
“Well it was announced and I was thinking ‘woah, who’s let this out? Who’s actually leaked this?’,” Seaman told talkSPORT.
“If it’s Chelsea then is it mind games? To make Arsenal think ‘is he going to be thinking about Chelsea when he’s playing?’
“Or maybe Arsenal have leaked it because they might not even be playing him, and use that as an excuse?
“It’s a strange one because there was a poll last night and I think it was about 60-40 wanted Leno to play.
“I know Cech has played all the games but in a final like that, especially against Chelsea.
“Arsenal need to win this game to get into the Champions League.
“For me, you play your strongest team.
“If that means Leno plays then that’s what I would do.
“I know Arsene Wenger did it with me, he did it to Richard Wright.
“He played all the FA Cup games and then played me in the final.”
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