All roads lead to Rome in European football…figuratively if not literally.
For instance, the UEFA Champions League is supposed to bring the best teams together from all of the domestic leagues across Europe. Manchester City threatened to waltz through to the final just as the Sky Blues roared to the 2018-19 Premiership, English Football League and FA Cup titles. Yet who was it standing in their way in the CL semifinals but Tottenham, a fellow English side that will go on to meet EPL runner-up Liverpool in the climactic battle in Spain.
Meanwhile, Arsenal and Chelsea – the latter of which has already qualified for the 2019-20 Champions League by finishing 3rd on the Premier League table after 38 fixtures – have each survived arduous paths through the 2018-19 UEFA Europa League against all manner of exotic and foreign opponents. Yet only then must they turn and face in the title match – ah ha! – a familiar foe from the Kingdom.
It reminds me of a Lewis Black routine about a 2-sided Starbucks mega-complex at the airport. “And when we finally emerge, what do we behold but…another Starbucks!” Except the battles between the top tiers of English football clubs are anything but sugar and cream.
The Champions League and the Europa League demonstrate that there are elite players and worthy clubs everywhere. The 2019 finals of said tournaments, however, are showing that a plurality of the game’s aristocrats hail from England.
Is this a preview of a Premiership match? Yes and no. It’s yet another “chance” UEFA meeting between a pair of fierce English rivals, who have conquered all of Europe only to discover another of the Queen’s armies at the same gates.
They’ll clash in battle at Baku Olympic Stadium in Azerbaijan on Wednesday before the Champions League final. A strange setting for somewhat strange circumstances.
Europa League Final: A Last Hurrah for 2018-19
What immediately interests me about this Europa League final are the UEFA’s controversial advance-and-relegate rules, since the event is technically a “2nd division” or “1st division” underneath the A-#1 UEFA Champions League where the very top domestic clubs meet across national lines.
If Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri was to in any way, shape, or form view the Europa League as a means to an end and not a mark on history, then we might expect a much-stronger surge from Arsenal on May 29th when the match takes place.
The Blues don’t “need” a Europa League trophy to play with the big dogs in the Champions League next season. Gunners surely do, having finished 5th in the EPL.
In any event the fixture presents a potentially intriguing clash of styles. Chelsea has had no problems defending over the long haul – a 6-0 loss to Manchester City in February can be chalked up to Sarri’s stubborn tactics and not a club-wide deficiency on the backline. Kepa has been solid, at-times brilliant in goal, and the Blues proved they could play with Citizens shortly after the embarrassment.
But a lack of goal-scoring and attacking pressure has plagued the 18-19 squad at times, like when Pensioners were unable to answer Liverpool on April 14th, or were mysteriously blanked 0-4 by Cherries in late January.
Criticism of Chelsea has centered around the team’s lack of a dominant striker of the likes of Salah, Kane, or Aubameyang of Arsenal. While it has been possible for Blues to formulate an excellent attack against the right opponents at the right times (see: Chelsea’s Europa League run) there is no question that a tremendous backline and keeper’s efforts have been wasted at times by frustrating striking.
A late-winter scoring slump for Pedro, Eden Hazard and other Chelsea forwards had arguably begun in the weeks prior, when Sarri’s club was blanked by Tottenham and Arsenal just 11 days apart. Spurs, of course, are known (or at least should be known) for a capital backline. Even with the injury to Harry Kane, it has not been surprising to see Tottenham continue to triumph with clean sheets.
Arsenal, on the other hand, has been in the pits of defensive football at times in 2018-19. Bosnian backliner Sead Kolašinac and center-back Shkodran Mustafi were pulled off the pitch as Liverpool rained orbs into the net during a 5-1 clobbering over the holidays. The Christmas spirit was lost on Gunnar supporters who excoriated coach Unai Emery and the team’s back 4…or back 6.
For a while, Arsenal’s top-4 bid in the Premier League got by in a “poor man’s Man City” sort of way. Aubameyang is so terrifying a striker that opposing clubs played carefully, not wanting to open up the matches, and allowing Gunners to prevail with rudimentary defending and clearance. When an elite attack chose to press ahead, it was often a different story.
But Emery has stayed the course, and his toil has resulted in Arsenal being a much stouter football club in 2019. In early spring, keeper Bernd Leno led a marvelous string of clean-sheet victories in Premier League competition, as the club blanked Southampton, United, Newcastle, and Watford in a 6-match span, the latter outcome a 1-0 win at Vicarage Road in which Gunners not only controlled the ball but goaded Troy Deeney into a red card in only the 11th minute.
Meanwhile, veteran Petr Čech has excelled in the Europa League, causing supporters to speculate on just when Emery would make switch – or if the skipper would make a switch – away from a keeper who clearly had a knack for the competition.
The answer? Never. Or at least, not according to all accounts. Čech has apparently been given the nod to keep taking the club as far as he can during what will probably be the veteran’s last-ever soccer tournament. I doubt even a poor start would take the GK off the pitch for any part of 90 minutes, or 120 minutes and beyond if necessary.
Hopefully Čech will play the match of his life, win or lose, and then avoid the mistake made by so many aging athletes and singer-songwriters…the mistake of playing annual “farewell” tours.
2018-19 UEFA Europa League Final: Comparing the Online Betting Odds
Bovada Sportsbook is protective of its status as “Big Daddy” of sports betting sites, and doesn’t like to stray too far from Vegas consensus.
But if there’s any consensus that Arsenal will be ready to sacrifice more life-and-limb for the Europa League title among English old-timers, it’s not making its way across the pond.
Not only do the Bovada bookies believe these clubs are about to bang heads and bash bodies for 90+ minutes while gunning (excuse the pun) for their only hardware of the season…they clearly think Chelsea has the far better chance to win on a neutral pitch.
Blues are a (+130) favorite at the sportsbook, with an Over/Under total of (2 ½) indicating that the defensive-minded Sarri club will dominate the flow of the match and score only as necessary.
The BetOnline market is in almost complete agreement, with Chelsea at (+129) and some fancy Asian Handicap/ATS action that there’s no need to get into.
MyBookie is offering a series of specials, or props, on the Europa League final which include “Arsenal by 2 Goals” at (+850) payoff and “Arsenal in Extra Time” at (+1200).
Each market is a tempting wager, for reasons I’m about to get into.
Arsenal vs Chelsea: My Prediction and Best Bets
I know I’ve been guilty of comparing soccer to other sports an awful lot lately. But this time, I’ve got a compliment for The Beautiful Game in mind…and a hunch about the match on 5/29.
Jimmy Johnson (not to be confused with auto racer Jimmie Johnson) was a championship gridiron coach in the NCAA and the NFL. But in retirement he has been a sloppy, lazy TV analyst. Once when predicting an outcome between Arizona and Philadelphia, he simply said, “Both teams have a good defense. Philadelphia, they got an aw-fay-ance (offense) and Arizona ain’t got one.”
Arizona 12, Philadelphia 6. Johnson’s mistake was that he thought of the National Football League in absolutes. All NFL fans have a tendency to do that. If Prospect X runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds and Prospect Y runs it in 4.5, draftniks will say, “Prospect X can run. Prospect Y can’t run.”
Oh, Prospect Y broke his leg and “can’t” run, really? I thought I just saw him running with just about as much functional speed as Prospect X.
Soccer supporters are wonderful in this regard. They recognize, for instance, that the English Premier League is quite possibly the deepest club organization in the world, and that even relegated squads are capable of explosive attacks. Nobody ever says, “I handicap Sunday’s Premier League hosts to have a guy all alone in front of the net with the ball, but he’ll whiff, because they can’t kick.”
Johnson wasn’t wrong in his choice of topics, though. The old pigskin coach was correct in his premise – it’s always easier for a more-dynamic team to win a big game.
Chelsea is an excellent football club. Blues will be plenty motivated. But is Chelsea as complete a soccer team as Arsenal has shown in the past few months? Take away the horrid mistakes and dropped points of 2018, and Gunners might have been in the thick of the Premier League race. There’s speed and bullishness at forward in Eden Hazard, cornerstone veterans like Stephan Lichtsteiner, and not 1, but 2 goalkeepers in top form at Arsenal.
Manchester City and Liverpool have choked-out the headlines. Emery’s club has been doing pretty alright on Page 2.
Oh, and Aubameyang – ahem – scored another pair of goals last weekend.
The question isn’t how to handicap the match – it’s “where is the best line on Arsenal to win?”
BetOnline is offering a (+210) payoff on the underdog, and that moneyline is a winner. I can see Aubameyang blowing this match open in the very late-going, which I do understand is a handicap that could lead to some serious nail-chewing if following to the letter at a betting book.
But ah – there is no rule that we must wager the moneyline. There is a factor of fatigue on the pitch that could lead to a tactically-inserted young striker taking over the final in its closing moments. How to best take advantage of that fact is up to the bettor’s creativity.
That’s why I’m drawn to the MyBookie prop lines most of all. Arsenal is, in my opinion, going to win the UEFA Europa League on May 29th. I’m not settled as to just how it will happen, and all’s we have right now are educated guesses.