UEL preview: Arsenal, Chelsea one step from meeting in final

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

If Thursday’s Europa League semifinal second legs even come close to living up to the Champions League drama we just enjoyed endured on Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll be endlessly thankful for two days of rest before the Premier League title race gets settled on Sunday.

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Arsenal, heading to Spain for the second leg, hold a 3-1 advantage over Valencia. Chelsea, meanwhile, have an away goal to their name after securing a 1-1 draw away to Eintracht Frankfurt last week.

Chelsea secured their top-four place in the PL on Sunday, and next season’s UCL qualification that comes with it. Arsenal, on the other hand, dropped points against 17th-place Brighton & Hove Albion and stand virtually no chance of overtaking Tottenham Hotspur for fourth (they trail their north London rivals by three points and eight goals in the goal differential column).

Winning the Europa League is the Gunners’ last (realistic) hope of avoiding Europe’s “other” competition for a third straight season and returning to the riches of club soccer’s biggest stage. Suffice to say, it’s a thoroughly intriguing subplot as these London clubs barrel toward a potential showdown at the final on May 29 in Azerbaijan.

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While Arsenal are winless in their last four PL outings (just one point, against Brighton), Unai Emery can point toward a series of stellar performances in the UEL, beginning with the second leg against Rennes in the round of 16, as a potential saving grace. After dropping the first leg 3-1 in France, Arsenal took care of business with a 3-0 victory at home. Since then, they brushed Napoli aside, 3-0 on aggregate, and hold what should be a comfortable lead over Valencia as they head to the Mestalla on Thursday.

Chelsea haven’t lost a game in Europe all season. They dropped just two points in the group stage, on the final day with their place in the knockout rounds long since secured, and were victorious in both legs prior to last week’s trip to Germany. So confident — and focused on finishing top-four in the PL — was Maurizio Sarri that he started the first leg with Eden Hazard on the bench before bringing him on for the final half-hour. However, the Blues are not likely to be without midfield engine N'Golo Kante after the Frenchman suffered a hamstring injury in their win over Watford.