Will Unai Emery’s Europa League love affair conquer Chelsea?

Arsenal have the curious distinction of employing a manager that is more successful in Europe than they are.

Yes, the Gunners don’t have too many fond memories in continental competition. As coach Unai Emery himself pointed out this week, the only two such trophies the club holds —the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup — don’t even exist anymore. He, meanwhile, has three.

This should be the perfect relationship. It bodes well for this vital final against Chelsea.

Particularly in the Europa League, the Spaniard is a serial winner. At Sevilla he took home all his titles consecutively between 2013 and 2016. As commendable as such an achievement is, no one paid too much attention to it or the competition as a whole for that run. Uefa has long been losing its battle to get anyone to give a damn about the second-tier tour of Eastern Europe.

The introduction of a guaranteed entry into the promised land of the Champions League for the winner may have finally changed that. The final has become akin to souls in purgatory having an opportunity to duke it out for a spot in heaven. There’s actually something real on the line. Fortunately for the Gunners then that they have a connoisseur of this cup at the precise moment in their history when they need him most.

This opportunity notwithstanding, Emery’s first season has been frustratingly average. Arsène Wenger didn’t exactly leave him much and it has told. A fifth-placed finish is exactly where they deserve to be. Arsenal will stick with the Spaniard for next season but the verdict on him is very much in the air.

But in Europe he has done his reputation no harm. After navigating past the scare of Rennes, the conquistador of lesser lands made light work of what should have been two challenging ties. Napoli were dismissed in the quarterfinals and Valencia’s end-of-season resurgence was answered with a 7-3 thumping.

With Jürgen Klopp preparing for the Champions League curtain closer next weekend, it seems a lifetime away that he was similarly eyeing a date with Seville. Emery outfoxed him that day in 2016; after Daniel Sturridge scored the opener, Liverpool couldn’t handle the fluidity of the Spaniards and their ability to readjust mid-game.

With the pressure off Chelsea, thanks to their third-place finish, Arsenal need their manager to inspire a similarly composed performance. The Blues, after all, would love nothing more than to screw their cross-city rivals out of a spot in the promised land.

Given those stakes, aided by the fact that this is an all-Anglo affair, this Europa League final has become the most anticipated of its kind in years. Still, this is an occasion for both to wallow in their mediocrity. The main question is whether Emery can climb the ladder before it’s bitterly kicked away from above.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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