AROUND teatime in Baku, there’s a real treat in store for the world’s media.
Before tomorrow’s Europa League final, Unai Emery will hold court with his usual blend of searing footballing insight, laugh-a-minute anecdotes and headline-grabbing soundbites.
As you’ve probably gathered, and not for the first time, the intro to this column was heavily laced with sarcasm.
Arsenal’s manager will never be crowned King of the Jungle by Ant and Dec. And they’ll never roll in the aisles of this nation’s provincial theatres while enjoying An Evening With Unai Emery.
Emery has held approximately 111 press conferences this season and, apart from once revealing that he was learning English by watching Peaky Blinders, he’s rarely given away anything about himself.
When Arsenal unveiled Emery as Arsene Wenger’s successor a year ago, chief executive Ivan Gazidis was in a remarkably smug mood in front of the press and nobody could quite work out why.
Yet as Gazidis slipped off to AC Milan, the reason for his self-satisfaction became apparent.
“I’ve done you lot up like a kipper,” he must have been thinking, “this bloke is virtually unquotable.”
It is admirable, but unhelpful, that Emery always addresses the media in English despite not being fluent.
Yet the language barrier is not that relevant as Emery didn’t offer much in his native Spain either.
And just as it is difficult to get a handle on Emery as a man, it is equally tough to quantify his first season at Arsenal.
After years of internecine warfare between Wenger In and Wenger Out factions, the Emirates is now full (well, according to the official attendance figure) of fans shrugging their shoulders about Emery.
The verdict is an overwhelming “hmmm, not sure”.
AWAY FORM STILL STINKS
The result of tomorrow’s final in Azerbaijan’s capital is unlikely to mean anything for Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea future as he’s expected to leave anyway.
But for Emery this truly will decide whether his season has been a success or failure — and quite possibly make or break his reign.
Wenger never won a European trophy in 22 years at Arsenal.
So to pull this one off, especially with the extra prize of Champions League qualification, would be hugely significant.
And one thing is for certain: Emery is the King of Thursday football.
He won the Europa League three times straight with Sevilla, while home and away wins over Napoli in this year’s quarter-finals and Valencia in the semis were seriously impressive.
Arsenal went unbeaten in 22 matches between August and December, yet they stumbled and fell down the straight to finish fifth.
So much has changed since Wenger, yet so much has stayed the same.
One of the last charismatic, all-powerful managers has been replaced by a studious head coach.
A team of sensitive artistes has become more athletic and industrious.
And a playing staff indulged by Wenger has been worked to the bone by Emery.
Yet good players still leave, the defending is still rank and the away form still stinks.
Following a long-serving legend can never be easy and Emery has done a better job than David Moyes at Manchester United — though with far lower expectations.
It is not easy to successfully transform a squad without lavish spending and Spaniard Emery will never have that luxury under the ownership of Stan Kroenke, tight of lip and wallet.
But a return to Europe’s top table would help enormously.
Chelsea, who routinely bullied Arsenal in Didier Drogba’s day, have beaten them just once in eight attempts — narrowly, 3-2 in Emery’s second match.
Their last experience of playing Arsenal, a 2-0 loss, was so bad Sarri openly savaged his squad.
And their last experience of a final, February’s League Cup defeat to Manchester City, ended in farce and acrimony thanks to Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Chelsea also face a midfield injury crisis with N’Golo Kante a particularly big miss.
So in these most unfamiliar of circumstances — a London derby on the borders of eastern Europe and Asia, with only a smattering of partisan supporters present — Emery’s reign could finally ignite.
Just don’t expect him to sing like a canary about it.
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PLUG A HOLL
IF Maurizio Sarri heads to Juventus after the Europa League final, there is every chance Chelsea will move to reappoint Steve Holland to their coaching staff.
England No 2 Holland is highly regarded at Stamford Bridge but is an extremely close ally of Gareth Southgate, who would fight tooth and nail to keep him with the national side.
Just an unlikely thought . . . but wouldn’t it be intriguing if Chelsea made enquiries about Southgate’s own availability in the event of Sarri leaving?
AFTER years of misery under owner Mike Ashley, Sunday delivered deep joy for Newcastle fans.
First Sunderland lost a heartbreaking play-off final, then news emerged that Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan — a cousin of Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour — was close to buying their club.
Khaled did fail in a bid for Liverpool last year, with proof of his funds said to have been unclear.
Some Geordie pessimists will reckon it’s just their luck to end up with a skint Sheikh . . .
TAKE A BOW
THERE aren’t many former Premier League footballers who’d make less obvious managerial successes than Lee Bowyer.
There was a drug ban, a high-profile court case (when he was acquitted of assaulting a student) and an on-field brawl with Newcastle team-mate Kieron Dyer.
Yet Bowyer has performed a minor miracle in winning promotion to the Championship with Charlton, against a backdrop of unrest between supporters and owner Roland Duchatelet.
Sport cherishes tales of redemption and Bowyer’s is a great example.
AMID all the ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ stuff you’ll experience this week (see other media outlets), it’s worth remembering that Jurgen Klopp has lost six consecutive cup finals.
If he were to lose a third Champions League final, this time as a clear favourite against Tottenham, then someone in Liverpool might even ask whether Klopp could actually possess some sort of weakness.
Jurgen Klopp is looking to end his run of six straight cup final losses as a boss[/caption]
KO AJ’S PAY DAY
THIS is some week for domestic sport with two all-English European finals, a Cricket World Cup starting on home soil and the 240th running of the Derby.
Our world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua will also be biffing a Mexican fat lad in Sunday’s early hours.
Enjoy a full night’s sleep, do not buy the pay-per-view and you might get a contest worth watching next time.
WELL done to former Southampton chief Rupert Lowe on election to the European Parliament with the Brexit Party.
Toff Rupert once appointed rugby’s Clive Woodward as director of football and led the Saints out of the top flight after a 27-year stay. He’ll get you your country back.
KNOCK 46 FOR SIX
THE Cricket World Cup, which starts on Thursday, promises to be thrilling — with an entertaining England team having a genuine chance of glory.
Yet a 46-day tournament is too long. Britain will probably have three different Prime Ministers before it ends.