An intense rivalry stretching back 112 years will be played out on the shores of the Caspian Sea, but this time with European silverware at stake, writes Simon Hart
Héctor Bellerin and Willian hit top speed in the Premier League
See you in Baku – so ran the Independent’s back-page headline on the morning of Friday 10 May, above images of Chelsea and Arsenal players celebrating their UEFA Europa League semi-final successes the previous night. For these clubs, a rivalry that began with a First Division fixture at Stamford Bridge on 9 November 1907 is about to gain a new dimension – with a European final at the Baku Olympic Stadium.
For the first time in this competition’s history, we have a final featuring two teams from the same city. There have been two Madrid match-ups in the UEFA Champions League, but for the UEFA Europa League this breaks new ground. To the watching international audience, Chelsea v Arsenal means a London derby, Blues v Reds, Sarri v Emery. Yet, as befits a 112-year rivalry, there are other layers of difference between two clubs separated by a journey of some 13.5 kilometres through the London traffic.
Arsenal are the establishment club of London, the first club from the city to turn professional, the first to take the league title to the capital in 1931. If Arsenal are the old money of London football, Chelsea are the new. Where Arsenal won all but two of their 13 English crowns in the 20th century, Chelsea have won five of their six in the 21st. Moreover, in 2012 they became the first and so far only London club to lift the European Cup.
Arsène Wenger may have once given José Mourinho a touchline shove, but it would be wrong to call these clubs the bitterest of rivals. Fulham are Chelsea’s closest rivals, geographically, given their proximity in the southwest of the capital, while the Blues’ derbies with Tottenham Hotspur stir the deepest feelings among many supporters. For Arsenal, ever since they left their original home south of the river and headed north to Highbury in 1913, the derby against Tottenham has been the big one. To illustrate the point, nine players in the Premier League era alone have represented both Arsenal and Chelsea – from Ashley Cole and Cesc Fàbregas to two men, Chelsea centre-forward Olivier Giroud and Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Čech, who are each preparing to face their old team in this final.
Chelsea won the only previous European meeting between the sides
John Hollins represented both these sides in an earlier era. He was a member of Chelsea’s European Cup Winners’ Cup-winning squad of 1971, and later played for Arsenal in the final of that competition against Valencia in 1980. Talking to Arsenal’s website, he evoked the very different cultures at the two clubs at the time. “After all those years at Chelsea playing under different managers and regimes, when it came to Arsenal they were so stable – nothing was a problem,” he recalled.
The forging of that stability, of that status as aristocrats of the English game, took place in the 1930s when Arsenal, under Herbert Chapman, became the first club to wrest the league championship trophy from the grip of the clubs in the Midlands and north of England. On top of their five league titles that decade, their old Highbury home gained its magnificent East Stand, with its art-deco façade and marble halls, and the famous white sleeves were added to the club’s red shirt. Arsenal were now established as the capital’s title-winning force. Indeed, when Chelsea won their first league title in 1955, their golden jubilee year, they did so under the management of Ted Drake, a 136-goal Arsenal icon of the 1930s. Off the pitch, Drake dropped Chelsea’s Pensioners nickname and changed the club crest to a lion; on it, he intensified the training regime and turned them into champions.
Ray Parlour celebrates scoring in the 2002 FA Cup final
Drake is not the only name of note to have served both clubs down the decades. Chelsea’s dynamic, young League Cup-winning side of 1965 was assembled by Tommy Docherty, who had gone from Arsenal player to Drake’s replacement as Chelsea manager. Docherty’s team included George Graham, the stylish Scottish midfielder who became part of Arsenal’s league and FA Cup double winners of 1971 and later manager of the Gunners’ 1989 and ’91 title-winning teams. There was also the aforementioned Hollins, who helped Chelsea capture both the FA Cup in 1970 and that first European honour, the Cup Winners’ Cup the next year, before later joining Arsenal.
That was an era when London clubs first left their mark on the continental landscape: prior to Chelsea’s inaugural Cup Winners’ Cup success, Tottenham (1963) and West Ham United (1965) had both triumphed in that competition, while Arsenal won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1970. Spooling forward to today, the fact there are three London clubs in the two European finals, with Spurs facing Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League, highlights the power of the Premier League and of London itself – a city as attractive to investors drawn to the game as it is to players and spectators. London may still lag behind Merseyside (27) and Manchester (26) for domestic championships, but in the post-1992 Premier League era, its clubs have collected eight of the city’s overall total of 21 league titles – three for Arsenal and five for Chelsea.
With it, Chelsea-Arsenal encounters have gained an extra edge – not least the pair’s only previous European engagement, the 2004 UEFA Champions League quarter-final in which Chelsea, in their first season following Roman Abramovich’s takeover, upset Wenger’s great Invincibles side. The Gunners did not lose a single Premier League match that season yet, after a 1-1 first-leg draw at Stamford Bridge, they succumbed 2-1 at home, beaten by Wayne Bridge’s 87th-minute strike.
This century has also brought the first cup finals between the clubs. Arsenal secured their 2001/02 double with a 2-0 FA Cup final triumph through goals by Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg. Chelsea turned the tables with a 2-1 comeback success, via Didier Drogba’s double, in a fractious League Cup final in 2007, featuring late red cards for Kolo Touré, Emmanuel Adebayor and John Obi Mikel. Then, in 2017, Arsenal won the sides’ second FA Cup final meeting, Aaron Ramsey scoring the winner after Victor Moses had been sent off.
This season, it has been honours even so far, with both sides winning at home in the Premier League. Now for another chapter. A different setting, far from home in Baku, but Blues v Reds once more – with the promise of a piece of silver to lug back to London afterwards.
DOMESTIC SQUABBLES ON THE EUROPEAN STAGE
After that all-Bundesliga encounter, the 1990s were marked by meetings of Serie A rivals. Juventus overcame Fiorentina 3-1 (aggregate) in 1990 but lost to Parma (1-2 agg) in the final in 1995. Internazionale beat both Roma 2-1 (agg) in 1991 and Lazio 3-0 in the first one-off final in 1998 in Paris.
It took a penalty shoot-out to separate winners Sevilla from Espanyol in the first all-Spanish final in 2007, following a 2-2 draw, while Porto edged Braga 1-0 when the UEFA Europa League spotlight shone on Portugal in the 2011 decider in Dublin. There was a wider margin of victory in Bucharest in 2012 when Atlético de Madrid beat Liga rivals Athletic 3-0 – though, as history shows, this is the exception rather than the rule.
The very first UEFA Cup final was an all-English affair, between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Spurs’ 3-2 aggregate triumph set the tone for the majority of the nine same-nation finals this competition has witnessed to date – closely contested with a single goal or less to divide the sides. In 1980, for instance, only away goals separated winners Eintracht Frankfurt from Borussia Mönchengladbach after a 3-3 aggregate draw.
Atlético were too strong for Liga rivals Athletic Bilabo in 2012