Unai Emery’s first season at Arsenal will be judged a success or failure depending on the outcome of a single game — the Europa League final against Chelsea — but the Spaniard has a habit of saving his best for Europe’s second-tier competition.
Emery won the Europa League three years in a row between 2014 and 2016 when at Sevilla and would become the most decorated coach in the competition’s history with another victory in Baku.
However, it is not only a first European trophy for 25 years at stake for Arsenal, but also a much-needed return to the riches of the Champions League after a two-season absence that will make or break the impression of Emery’s debut campaign.
Arsenal’s preparations for the final have been dogged by off-field issues over the awarding of the final to the Azerbaijani capital.
Many fans have been priced out of making the near-5,000-mile (8,000-kilometre) round trip, while Emery’s team selection has also been affected, with midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan deciding not to travel on safety grounds due to political tensions between his native Armenia and Azerbaijan.
However, Emery shrugged off suggestions Arsenal could even consider boycotting the match, and is determined that those distractions do not impact on his side by the time kick-off comes on Wednesday.
“We have the chance to win a title and play in the Champions League next season,” said Emery. “All of this is much more important than where we are going to play the final.
“It’s not possible with Mkhi, yes. It’s not possible with the fans like we want, yes. But the final is very important.”
Chelsea do not have the added pressure of Champions League qualification resting on the outcome of the final, having edged ahead of Emery’s faltering side in the final weeks of the Premier League season to finish third.
– Arsenal slump –
Before a meaningless final-day win at Burnley, Arsenal had taken just one point from four games against Crystal Palace, Wolves, Leicester and Brighton.
Emery had the difficult job of succeeding Arsene Wenger after the Frenchman’s 22-year reign came to an end 12 months ago.
In a time of transition, the Basque coach has done a steady if unspectacular job.
However, doubts remain over his ability to lead Arsenal back to the heights they reached under Wenger, particularly if they miss out on Champions League revenue once more.
Emery admitted in the January transfer window that the club could only afford to take players on loan.
The same defensive issues that haunted Wenger’s final years in charge have been repeated. Arsenal outscored both Chelsea and local rivals Tottenham in the Premier League but missed out on the top four by virtue of conceding 51 goals.
Emery has constantly changed personnel and formations to find the right balance and even left one or other of his two star forwards Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the bench for much of the campaign.
However, Lacazette and Aubameyang have been united of late with spectacular success as once again an Emery team has come good in the Europa League.
Even as they stuttered in the Premier League, Arsenal beat Napoli and Valencia home and away to book their long trip to Baku.
“Above all in football, coaches, players and supporters want to play to feel a special moment. And this is one special moment. Our focus is very clear for this match,” said Emery.
Since Arsenal were last in a European final in 2006, the Gunners have won just three trophies — all FA Cups — compared with Chelsea’s 13 in those years as the standards set early in Wenger’s reign sharply declined towards the end.
Getting one over on their London rivals this week will not only make Emery’s first season a success, but allow Arsenal to look to the future with renewed optimism.