We’ve all been so wrapped up in hating the location of the Europa League final that we’d almost forgotten there’s a game of football still to be played.
So, here we are, a little more than 24 hours away from the game trying to whip up some excitement.
We’ve talked UEFA, UEFA, UEFA and little else since we made the final and realised most of us wouldn’t be able to go. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s absence has been lamented and criticised and all the column inches in the media have focussed on the politics of the game rather than the game itself.
As such, it was easy to forget it’s a final that comes with a big shiny European trophy and all that sexy Champions League cash that Arsenal so desperately need.
Most expect Wednesday’s game against Chelsea in Baku to be Petr Cech’s final game of football, his playing swansong if you will. The script has been so perfectly written he’s even pitted against his old club where he holds legend status. Cech has been Arsenal’s Europa League goalkeeper this season, so it seems his destiny to play. But should he? Shouldn’t you play your absolute best players in a game of this magnitude?
Imagine Arsenal had been playing (a fit) Danny Welbeck throughout the previous rounds. Would you be happy for us to keep Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench to allow Welbz to play in Baku? Or would you demand Arsenal’s best forwards start their biggest game?
There’s no denying Cech is a giant of the game. He’s won just about every trophy going, some of them more than once, but he isn’t an Arsenal legend. He belongs to Chelsea. As a club, we owe him little, as cruel and ungrateful as that sounds.
Luckily, Bernd Leno agrees with me.
“I have great respect for Petr, and we get along very well,” Arsenal’s No.1 told Kicker. “He deserves all credit, and I treat him well.
“But it’s clear that I’m a competitor, I always want to play, especially in a final. Therefore, it would be the completely wrong time to have a guilty conscience.
“I’m certainly not going to say “I’d rather not play”. I’m keen to play. That’s my mindset. However, it is not decided yet. [If Emery picks Cech] I would have to accept it. The most important thing is that we win regardless of who is in goal.”
“To win the Europa League would be the first big title for me. We all want to hear the [Champions League] anthem again.”
If you want to be churlish in order to make the point, there’s also the small matter of how Cech coped the first time he played Chelsea for Arsenal. He made a whopper of a mistake that day that gifted them a goal. It was understandable, he’s only human after all. Nobody could ever doubt his professionalism but you’d have to be a sociopath to feel nothing in a Champions League-dependent Europa League Cup final against the side you made your name with, in your final ever game of football.
There’s also the small matter of Arsenal’s moronic defence that needs as much help as possible. They’ve shown themselves to be less jittery when Leno is behind them rather than Cech, becoming accustomed to playing in front of the German this season.
In those small margins, trophies are won and lost.
I like Cech. I’d love to see him go out on a high with a trophy in his hands while wearing an Arsenal shirt, but I like Arsenal more. It matters to me that they collect the trophy, not that Cech is given the perfect send-off.
There is no room for sentiment at this level and Arsenal need to win this game more than Cech needs the perfect end to an almost flawless career.
This article was written for Paddy Power.