SINGAPORE — This is it, the climactic week of the European football season. Two major finals will dominate this week: the Europa League final on Wednesday (29 May), and the prestigious Champions League final on Saturday.
For the first time since European football governing body Uefa introduced its first continental competition (the European Cup, predecessor to the Champions League) in 1955, its two biggest Cups will be contested by teams from a single country.
The Europa League final will see two London-based clubs fighting for honours – Arsenal and 2013 winners Chelsea. Meanwhile, the crown jewel of European competitions – the Champions League final – will see another all-England battle, with first-time finalists Tottenham coming up against five-time champions Liverpool.
Which familiar English Premier League (EPL) teams will claim these top European honours?
Europa League final: Chelsea v Arsenal
These two clubs had new managers at the start of the season, and arguably the jury is still out for both Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri and Arsenal’s Unai Emery. A Europa League win will go a long way in offering job stability for the duo, at least for one or two more seasons.
Under Sarri, Chelsea started the 2018/19 season well with five straight league wins, but struggled badly at the turn of the year. Sarri, as well as his key signings Jorginho and Gonzalo Higuain, have failed to convince the Blues fans that their side can return to their title-winning days under previous bosses Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte.
Sarri has argued that this is a team in transition, and entering both the Europa League and Carabao Cup finals – as well as finishing third in the league – makes for a good season overall. Yet, the Italian knows that fans would only be appeased with a trophy, and his side do look capable of beating Arsenal if they play to their strengths.
The Blues’ backline of David Luiz, Anton Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta is sturdy and tough to beat. In midfield, the dynamic N’Golo Kante will miss the final with a knee injury, but the key player for the team is Eden Hazard, who will be counted on to create chance for both himself and his teammates.
The problem for Chelsea is their frontline, which has misfired for much of the season. Either Higuain or former Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud must step up and convert their chances.
For Arsenal, it was a similar story to Chelsea, as they also started the season in fine fettle, and likewise stumbled as the season progressed. But unlike Chelsea, their strikers are the least of their worries, with both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scoring goals aplenty for the Gunners.
It is the Gunners’ midfield and defence which look suspect. Mesut Ozil has been inconsistent as a playmaker, even causing Emery to drop him for the early parts of the season. Meanwhile, the less said about Arsenal’s error-prone defenders, the better.
Bad Arsenal defence vs bad Chelsea strikers; good Chelsea defence v good Arsenal strikers. And so it all boils down to this one question: Which team will take control of midfield? The team who manage to do so will likely win the final in Baku.
Champions League final: Tottenham v Liverpool
On paper, this looks like a mismatch: first-time finalists against five-time champions. But you would be very wrong to think that Tottenham will be easy meat for Liverpool.
Spurs are riding high after their extraordinary comeback in their semi-final clash against Dutch side Ajax Amsterdam, with Lucas Moura’s 95th-minute away-goal winner from 0-3 down on aggregate sending their fans into ecstatic joy.
They have been a revelation in their run-up to the final, beating the likes of Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and EPL champions Manchester City along the way. With key players Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Moura firing on all cylinders, they can beat anyone on their day,
Yet, their main goal-getter and captain Harry Kane is racing against time to recover from an ankle injury and be ready for the final. Kane adds a clinical scoring touch to Mauricio Pochettino’s side, and if he is fit and ready, then Spurs will have an extra cutting edge against Liverpool.
Yet, Liverpool are undoubtedly the favourites in this final. After a season in which they lost just once in the EPL, yet finish second to Man City, the Reds are dead set on finishing their stellar season on a high note.
They had a marvellous comeback of their own in the Champions League semi-finals, beating Lionel Messi’s Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate after losing 0-3 in the first leg.
And they managed that feat without injured striker Roberto Firmino, who will be fit for the final. Together with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, they form one of the most fearsome strike forces in Europe in the past two seasons.
Behind the trio, the midfield is sturdy and dynamic. But it is in defence where Liverpool have been transformed from lightweights to heavyweights. Virgil van Dijk has had an extraordinary season of dominance, marshalling the backline with immaculate calmness. Here’s an unbelievable stat: the Dutchman has not let any striker dribble past him this entire season. Simply a colossus.
Behind him, goalkeeper Alisson Becker has justified his high transfer fee with crucial saves that kept Liverpool in contention both in the EPL and the Champions League. And fullbacks Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have been the Reds’ secret weapons all season, defending robustly and delivering pin-point crosses for their strike force to convert.
Will Liverpool earn their sixth European Cup, or will Spurs stun their rivals on their first final trip? All eyes will be on the Saturday showpiece event in Madrid.