The Europa League hasn’t failed to excite this season.
For the first time since the UEFA Cup became the Europa League in the 2009/10 season, the final will be contested by two clubs from England, with Arsenal and Chelsea set to battle it out in Baku to earn some silverware after a gruelling season – live on talkSPORT.
There is a lot more at stake for the Gunners, however, as a win would ensure they play in next season’s Champions League.
Chelsea have already secured their destiny following their third place finish in the Premier League.
Chelsea defender ANDREAS CHRISTENSEN has had a very solid campaign in the Europa League.
The Dane has played nearly every minute of the Blues’ run to the final and has helped Chelsea keep seven clean sheets, the most in the competition.
Eintracht Frankfurt centre-back MARTIN HINTEREGGER has been mightily impressive for the German side this campaign, particularly against Chelsea in the semi.
He put in a series of good blocks and last ditch challenges to keep the Blues at bay and he has been doing this all campaign for his side.
Valencia defender EZEQUIEL GARAY has been imperious in defence for his side this tournament.
Although his club began the season in the Champions League he has been crucial for them on their run to the semi-finals, although he was ultimately unable to prevent Arsenal’s lethal strike force in the last round.
Frankfurt’s SEBASTIAN RODE worked tirelessly to keep Chelsea at bay in the last four and he was desperately unlucky his efforts were not rewarded.
He has been solid as rock throughout the campaign for his club in both attack and defence and looks a real dime in the midfield.
Chelsea playmaker RUBEN LOFTUS-CHEEK will be heartbroken he is not playing in the final following the Achilles tendon injury he picked up in a post-season friendly in Boston.
The Englishman has arguably been the Blues’ best performer in the Europa League this term, chipping in with four crucial goals to send his side to the final.
Valencia midfielder DANIEL PAREJO has also been the main orchestrator in the Valencia line-up, puling the strings at the heart of the midfield to keep play ticking over for his side.
There has been so many outstanding forwards in the Europa League that is it is extremely difficult to fit them all in.
Sevilla forward WISSAM BEN YEDDER has been on stellar form in Europe, notching up eight goals throughout the campaign to help his side to the quarter-finals.
Arsenal striker PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG – also on eight goals – has often been played on the left throughout the tournament and he was outstanding in their last match against Valencia, almost single-handedly sending the Gunners to Baku with a hat-trick.
LUKA JOVIC has been incredible for Eintracht Frankfurt this term and he looks to be off to Real Madrid for his stellar displays.
Along with OLIVIER GIROUD, who completes the line-up, they are the top scoring players in the Europa League this season with 10 goals.
The Frenchman has been a handful for opposition defences in Europe throughout the campaign, scoring some stunning goals in the process.
Have a look at the line-up in full below…
The Europa League final between Chelsea and Arsenal will be live on talkSPORT at 20:00 on 29 May
The 2018-19 LaLiga season is finally over, and with the dust settled it’s time to pick talkSPORT’s team of the season from Spain’s top-flight.
To make things a bit more interesting, we’ve placed a limit of only one player per team.
3-4-1-2, in the style of Sevilla under Pablo Machin – a coach who should never have been sacked.
The Andalucians finished the season in the exact same league position as when they let go of Machin in March: sixth.
A hasty decision driven by the ego of a sporting director who thought he could do better as manager, but couldn’t.
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Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid)
The almost unbeatable Slovenian has just wrapped up his fourth consecutive Zamora Trophy for the goalkeeper in LaLiga with the lowest goals to games ratio.
Atleti had the best defensive record in the league but the numbers are deceptive: unlike the days of old, it’s not down to an impenetrable backline, but rather, the exceptional consistency of the best keeper in the world.
Forget Antoine Griezmann’s impending departure from the Metropolitano this summer – extending Oblak’s contract until 2023 is of far more importance.
Getafe’s Togolese centre-back already looked encouraging last year but this season he has been exceptional.
Some defenders are reactive, but Djené is a rarer breed in that he excels at being proactive, predicting then snuffing out danger, weekend after weekend.
One of the vital cogs in a dream European finish for the Madrid side, a bigger club will surely come calling for the late bloomer, who at 27 doesn’t have a huge amount of time to waste.
Mario Hermoso (Espanyol) It’s not often Espanyol players get called up for Spain duty, and Mario Hermoso being a regular fixture in international squads since the autumn reflects a reliability that has helped elevate the Barcelona underdogs to their best year in over a decade.
The Blanc-i-blaus play attractive attacking football, but they’re also capable of digging in when required. Three clean sheets in their last three league games helped the Catalans get over the line and seal a European spot for the first time in 12 years. Their leader at the heart of the defence was vital in that.
Iñigo Martínez (Athletic Club)
Making the switch from Real Sociedad to Athletic Club is a controversial matter, but with each day Iñigo Martínez looks more like a throwback to the archetypal old-school Athletic defender, so it’s easy to see why the Basque giants were so keen to convince him.
Since Gaizka Garitano took over in December and brought back the more physical, direct style that Los Leones are known for, Martínez has flourished. Excellent in the air, sharp in his anticipation and capable of throwing his weight around to good effect in rattling opposition attackers, at 28 he should really tie down an international starting place soon.
Jonathan Silva (Leganés)
Logic dictates that a club with the modest resources of Leganés should not be capable of holding a better defensive record than Real Madrid, Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Athletic Club, but under Mauricio Pellegrino this season the Pepineros have done exactly that.
Pellegrino’s second most-used outfield player, Jonathan Silva is not only tireless in his covering at the back, but also capable of turning defence into attack, providing a regular threat going forward as the best modern full-backs should. Destined for bigger things.
The heart and soul of a Valencia side that turned a worrying situation around into one of their best seasons in years (more on that later).
Under Marcelino Parejo has flourished into a true leader, the first name on the teamsheet for Los Che and someone who isn’t only good when they’re good, but was also excellent even when his team were dire.
Valencia’s top scorer in the league this season despite playing a deep midfield role, Parejo is finally fulfilling the potential Alfredo Di Stéfano saw in him all those years ago.
Real Betis have tailed off disappointingly in recent months, but signing their midfield playmaker on a long-term deal in April puts them in an exciting position for the season ahead.
Lo Celso came of age on no less a stage than the Camp Nou in November, when he pulled the strings in a momentous 4-3 win for Betis that made everyone sit up and pay attention to the other Argentinian on the pitch.
A box-to-box style player with nine goals and five assists in the league, he could just be the dynamic midfielder Messi has been longing for in the Argentinian national team.
Pablo Sarabia (Sevilla)
In LaLiga, 23 goals and 17 assists are ridiculous numbers for a non-striker, and Sarabia deserves far more attention than he is getting for just how lethal he has been in the final third.
Whether behind the striker or on the wing the 27-year-old has proved a nightmare to defend against, troubling and scoring against the likes of Valencia, Atlético Madrid and Barcelona.
Sarabia likes scoring against the Blaugrana so much in fact that he decided to do it in three different competitions this season. All of that should be argument enough for boyhood club Real Madrid to come calling this summer, but even if they don’t, Sarabia’s €18million buyout clause is an invitation for anyone who is paying attention.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
No explanation needed when you score 36 goals and create 13 others in the league alone.
If ever there was such a thing as a one-man team it is Celta with Aspas this year.
The Galicians remained in danger of relegation until the final round of the season, yet for a third year running, Aspas finished as the highest-scoring Spaniard in the division.
Aspas’ 20 strikes in 27 matches account for almost 40 percent of Celta’s total goals in LaLiga 2018-19. With him in the team their loss percentage was 29 percent, without him it was 81. Celta had better hope their hero never retires.
Cristhian Stuani (Girona)
Girona sank like a brick after Christmas but they had hope until the very end thanks to one man.
Cristhian Stuani’s return of 19 league goals for the third poorest team in LaLiga is better than Antoine Griezmann’s for league runners up Atleti (15), Rodrigo Moreno’s for Valencia (eight), and €100million footballer Gareth Bale’s for Real Madrid (eight).
The 32-year-old Uruguayan has peaked late in his career but what a peak it is, including a brace that earned Girona an historic draw at the Camp Nou and a goal in an equally memorable club-first win at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Stuani has scored against every member of Spain’s top four in 2018/19, so he’s certainly too good to play second tier football next season.
There are a number of reasonable candidates for coach of the year in Spain, but what Marcelino pulled off in taking Valencia from 15th place in mid-December to fourth by the final round of the season is truly remarkable.
It could all have panned out very differently had the people behind the scenes pulled the trigger when things were at their worst, but the conviction with which key players defended their gaffer spoke volumes, as did the fact that a fan base with a reputation for being fickle never really wavered.
The final outcome was proof that standing by your coach can be just as fruitful a solution as mixing things up. This is the first time Valencia have managed to “defend” a champions league spot since 2011, and with a Copa del Rey final against a depleted Barcelona coming up this weekend, Marcelino’s last laugh could soon grow even louder.
Lee Roden’s LaLiga Team of the Season with a limit of only one player per team
Some players explode into life and already dazzle among the best as teenagers. Others chart more of a steady, gradual rise.
The latter is the case for Dani Parejo, now establishing himself as one of La Liga’s most reliable at the age of 29.
Despite his prolonged path to the very top, no less than Alfredo Di Stéfano predicted the midfielder would be one of the best when few others seemed to believe it.
Parejo was the apple of the Madrid legend’s eye, and the late Argentinian insisted he was the finest player he had ever seen in Los Blancos’ youth system. When the Spanish giants disagreed and sent the then youngster on a humbling loan spell to QPR in the Championship in 2008, Di Stéfano stopped going to B team (Castilla) games in protest.
Di Stéfano’s vision ultimately proved to be sound: Parejo has now leapfrogged the likes of Koke and Saúl in the Spain pecking order thanks to an excellent club season.
For a while though, it was touch and go. Capable of truly brilliant moments, for years he also lacked the consistency to fulfil his true potential, not always as fit and sharp as someone without natural pace needs to be in order to cope in midfield.
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Inconsistency is what defined the early part of his time at Valencia. The first real high coincided with the arrival of Nuno Espirito Santo as coach in 2014. The Portuguese took advantage of Parejo’s natural ability in front of goal, giving him room to surge into space behind the striker and score 11 from midfield. That helped a revitalised and rejuvenated Los Che return to the Champions League positions for the first time since 2012.
But the lows were particularly low. In Valencia’s horrific 2015-16 season (the one with the Gary Neville experiment) Parejo became a scapegoat for everything that was going wrong at the club. He was stripped of the captaincy by Neville, and Valencia finished as close to the relegation zone as they did the European spots.
Things didn’t get any better in the subsequent year. Sections of the fanbase grew increasingly frustrated with a player they perceived to not be trying hard enough, and everything suggested Parejo would leave the Mestalla a fallen hero, the Madrid native actively looking for a way out. Then, for the second time in his career, someone saw something when others didn’t.
Marcelino taking charge in 2017 marked the beginning of a return to the top for Los Che, and more than any other, Parejo is the player he has built it around. Despite carrying out a sweeping dressing room clearout, the Asturian saw something worth fighting for when the midfielder was at his worst moment, convincing him to stay and making him the captain once more. Parejo has paid off that faith in spades.
Confidence and the mental side of things is certainly important, but there is a tactical explanation too: Marcelino has firmly established Parejo’s position as a deep-lying playmaker with license to make late runs into the area (think Xabi Alonso), and that has allowed him to truly excel.
With seven league goals he is the highest-scoring central midfielder in La Liga this season. For some perspective, next on the list is Santi Cazorla, with four, then Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic with three each. All are higher profile figures than Parejo, none have been as consistent.
And even if his spell in England was brief there is certainly a touch of the English style to his game, box-to-box and specialising in catching opposition defenders out by arriving late from the third line to either finish in the area or drill off a shot from distance.
The captain is absolutely indispensable for his coach, playing in 25 of 28 league matchdays so far.
Sergio Ramos is the only captain from the other Spanish powerhouses to have played more league games (26).
The first sign we were seeing the best of Parejo was his leadership role in getting Valencia back into the Champions League last year, but it is his repeated excellence this year, even when other members of the team have struggled to deliver, that truly confirms it.
A key defensive piece who has recovered possession more than any other outfield player for Los Che, he has also been their most dangerous creative threat, averaging 2.5 key passes per game and 85% pass completion – that’s particularly impressive considering his habit of receiving the ball in congested areas.
This year marks Valencia’s centenary, and it could yet prove to be one of the best. Fourth place is still within touching distance, a spot in a first cup final in 10 years has already been booked, and a Europa League quarter-final against relegation strugglers Villarreal offers a favourable path to European glory.
Be it David Albelda, Ruben Baraja or David Silva, Los Che’s best modern teams have always featured great midfielders. If they are indeed celebrating come the summer, they can thank the next in that lineage for his major contribution.
Di Stéfano would be proud of what Parejo has become.
So where does that leave Arsenal? Considering Liverpool and Manchester United were sniffing after the midfielder, the Gunners can take solace Ramsey decided to not follow Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri by signing for domestic rivals.
Regardless, the north Londoners are in need of a replacement and the list of transfer targets seems to be growing by the day.
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Below, talkSPORT.com will aim to list just five of those names and explain why they would fit seamlessly into Unai Emery’s side.
Scroll down to see the entire list of potential transfer targets.
Piotr Zielinski – Napoli
The Poland international nearly moved to Liverpool in 2016, until current Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri went all out to sign the midfielder for Napoli.
‘He will be the next Kevin De Bruyne’, Sarri confidently declared. With a buyout clause of €60million in contract, signing the 24-year-old would be seen as an investment as well as an impact signing.
His three goals in Serie A this season does not exactly qualify as prolific, but the attacking midfielder is certainly a star for the future.
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