Endgame – Journey to the centre of the Europa League

“Fail to prepare; prepare to fail,” once said a stern-faced Corkman. Admittedly, he probably wasn’t thinking of this time of the season, when important games come so thick and fast for the teams still in contention that most preparation takes the form of the previous 90 minutes.

Three day turnarounds (or a much-quoted 62 hours in Chelsea’s case) mean that the remaining pretenders to the Europa League throne instead prepped for their critical second-leg ties with a series of crucial league fixtures. The results were wildly-contrasting.

Such is the strange nature of the continent’s labyrinthine second-tier tournament, that ultimate victory is often overshadowed by the consequent Champions League qualification.

As it happened, the final four found themselves scrapping domestically for a UCL spot in-between both legs of their European semi-finals.

For Chelsea, a win could seal the deal; their opponents Eintracht Frankfurt were still clinging on to an unexpected top-four berth in the Bundesliga.

Meanwhile, Arsenal and Valencia lurked just outside their respective final qualifying places, in tightly-contested races for the promised land.

Priority-wise, thoughts of lifting UEFA’s heaviest silverware in Baku this month ranked somewhere behind renewing the kit man’s contract and remembering to put the bins out.

The English clubs enjoyed/endured contrasting fortunes – Chelsea, victorious vs cup final-focused Watford, indirectly profiting from the continuation of Arsenal’s untimely Premier League slump.

By comparison, the chasm in results between their Thursday night opponents gaped yawningly.

Valencia – on the back of letting a first-leg lead slip to trail Arsenal by two goals – travelled to Liga upstarts Huesca.

Duly, they set about dismantling the tiny relegation battlers; being three goals to the good within 20 minutes and hardly breaking sweat as they virtually walked in five by half-time.

An ultimate 6-2 victory, as they stepped off the gas later in the game, reflected the strong nature of Marcelino’s selection, demonstrating his belief that the league may still represent Los Che‘s best opportunity of Champions League football next term.

However, over in Leverkusen, some hours earlier, things were coming spectacularly unstitched for Bundesliga over-achievers Frankfurt.

In an almost grotesque mirror image of events in Aragon, Adi Hutter’s side suffered an unholy first-half shellacking at the hands of hot-on-their-coat-tails Bayer 04.

Blistering early goals from wunderkinder Kai Havertz and Julian Brandt put die Werkself two to the good, before in-form Filip Kostic pulled one back with a heavily-deflected shot.

That was as good as it got for a side clearly still affected by the overwrought emotional nature of their first-leg dual with Chelsea (which ended 1-1).

Their implosion was complete by the 36th minute, as free-wheeling Leverkusen strode imperiously into a 6-1 lead.

Despite making four changes – including a rest for Madrid-bound Luka Jovic – a bewildered Hutter could hardly have anticipated such a humbling fall to earth in the wake of their most special European night since lifting the UEFA Cup back in 1980.

A measure of the Austrian coach’s bewilderment could be seen in his introduction of Jovic soon after the sixth strike – with the game gone, why pointlessly risk the striker’s fitness with their trip to London on the immediate horizon?

Theories abound that Frankfurt are fast running out of steam, just at the death of what has been a hitherto superb season.

Nonetheless, the German side benefit from the return of USA international Timothy Chandler after a prolonged spell on the sidelines, though Danny da Costa should expect to continue at right wing-back.

Ex-Bayern man Sebastian Rode (on loan from Dortmund) suffered a sprained toe and a black eye in the first leg at the Commerzbank-Arena (Hutter: “He looked like he’d been in a boxing match.”) Makoto Hasebe is in contention to start, while towering striker Sebastien Haller remains absent with an abdominal injury.

For Chelsea, whose seemingly ‘disastrous’ season gained a fresh coat of gloss in light of their Champions League qualification, Olivier Giroud is the competition’s top scorer, with ten.

Having started only seven games in the league, the 30-year-old forward has habitually been used rather than Eden Hazard as the focus of Chelsea’s potent Europa League attack. Maurizio Sarri is also likely to introduce the still-blossoming Ruben Loftus-Cheek for N’Golo Kante (hamstring).

While the relative merits of the England and France internationals could be debated, the hosts will surely miss Antonio Rüdiger more, as the authoritative centre-back has undergone knee surgery for an injury suffered ahead of the first leg. Andreas Christensen – who, like Giroud, has started regularly on the continent – is likely to be partnered by David Luiz.

For those lacking trust in that partnership’s competence, it should be noted that this tie pits together the highest-scoring sides in this season’s competition: 31-goal Chelsea against 29-goal Frankfurt.

While Sarri’s side, with away goal in hand, are heavy favourites given their recent European pedigree, their path to the final will be far from uncomplicated.

Arsenal’s domestic travails of late have drawn back the veil from their numerous shortcomings – many of which were on display even in eventual victory at the Emirates.

The potency of fans’ player of the season Alexandre Lacazette (who has now scored in the Europa League semis for three years on the spin) and free-scoring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has masked the lack of cohesion behind them in Unai Emery’s team.

With Aaron Ramsey now missing through season-ending injury, even more responsibility will be heaped upon the slender shoulders of Mesut Ozil – if selected.

They visit Mestalla with the hosts unlikely to field such an incredibly negative line-up as last week, where Marcelino selected nearly half a team of centre-backs.

One of them, Mouctar Diakhaby, scored their only goal while playing in an unfamiliar midfield screening role, but this time the emphasis should be more on throwing caution to the wind in order to wipe out their not insurmountable two-goal deficit.

Valencia will be buoyed by the knowledge that they are undefeated in eleven Europa League home games, with wins in all of the last eight, during which they have scored 22 goals and conceded just three.

The last team to conquer Mestalla in this competition? Swansea City, with a 3-0 win on the first matchday of the 2013/14 group stage. In short, this tie is far from dead yet.

And, in addition to their ongoing pursuit of ultimate success in Baku, plus Champions League football, Valencia face Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final at the end of an inconsistent season which could yet be remembered for all the right reasons.

So, as another drama-laden, continent-spanning Europa League season draws to its close, will the endgame live up to expectation? Will it be an all-EPL final, or will the London giants’ defensive vulnerabilities be stripped bare with glory just out of reach?

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