It was interesting to see some criticism of Arsenal for releasing provisional plans for a parade of the UEFA Cup trophy the evening after the final (in the event of winning), with fans of other clubs (and even a few Arsenal supporters) considering it smalltime, and Chelsea not planning any such event.
Granted, the European Cup - now rebranded as the Champions League – ironically being competed for this weekend by two clubs who have not won their domestic championship for 29 and 58 years - is a more prestigious trophy. However, it should be remembered that two of the greatest nights in Arsenal’s history were their winning the two European trophies they have secured – the Fairs Cup in 1970 and the (now defunct) Cup Winners’ Cup in 1994. None of those who were there on either night will forget how important they felt then.
Baku is also important. The club have had three losing finals in UEFA competitions since 1994 (one in each of the three that existed between 1972 and 2000), all lost narrowly, in painful fashion, as was their other European final against Valencia before that, in 1980.
It’s particularly cruel that two of those four fruitless finals were decided from the lottery of penalty shoot-outs. With more fortune, the club could have doubled their Euro trophy tally. Once you go to spot kicks though, you are in the equivalent of a South African online casino list. Amongst the Arsenal players that missed in final shoot outs are legends such as Liam Brady and Patrick Vieira. Davor Suker is nowhere near being a club legend, but had a reputation for scoring from penalties, yet even he failed to convert in the 2000 shoot-out. There is no question that drama surrounds the Gunners in Euro finals. And in all likelihood, tomorrow evening, whatever the result, will follow suit.
The main thing though is that Arsenal need to break this streak of losing finals. 1995 v Real Sociedad, 2000 v Galatasaray and 2006 v Barcelona. Three finals in 12 seasons at least gave supporters some memorable nights en route to those games, but the last 12 seasons have seen pretty thin pickings, as Arsenal largely disappeared off the map in terms of credible continental campaigns.
And of course, there is the small matter of what is at stake aside from a European trophy. Having failed to secure Champions League football via a top four finish, financially, Arsenal need more income to accelerate a difficult rebuilding process, a consequence of the mismanagement that characterized the latter years of the Wenger / Gazidis era, with big players allowed to wind down their contracts to the point where the club could not sell them on for their true value, accompanied by some poor spending on new arrivals.
In fairness to Unai Emery, given the hotpotch of a squad he inherited and the misfortune to lose two key defenders for the majority of the season, it would have been an against the odds achievement to land a top four place in his first shot at it (which is why he will be given another year). However, the Europa League is a competition he seems to have mastered, remarkably winning it with Sevilla in each of his previous three attempts to win this trophy.
More than that though, the scars of the past for Gooners need some healing. The aforementioned European final defeats hurt badly and for many still do. Perhaps because all were lost narrowly. Perhaps because Arsenal’s status as a big club is undoubtedly compromised by their relative lack of trophies on the European stage.
So yes, perhaps for Chelsea, this is not such a big deal. There is no arguing with the reality that they have won more silverware than Arsenal in Europe, including three trophies since the Gunners’ last successful continental campaign.
But Arsenal fans shouldn’t concern themselves with Chelsea’s attitude to the Europa League. The reality is that all their success since 2003 is something that Arsenal could have probably superseded were they to have enjoyed the same amount of finance being pumped in by an oligarch owner. So comparisons aren’t valid.
Let us hope that the reality that the final means more to Arsenal - for two big reasons - results in a winning performance and big celebrations in the Highbury area on Thursday evening.