Arsenal will potentially play in the Europa League final without its most-used midfielder. The team is prepared to leave Henrikh Mkhitaryan at home for the May 29 match in Baku, Azerbaijan, due to safety issues surrounding the Armenian midfielder, per The Guardian.
Azerbaijan is hosting its first major tournament final.
Azerbaijan, Armenia in conflict
Azerbaijan and Armenia have been in conflict since 1988 when Armenia made territorial claims against Azerbaijan. A war ensued and resulted in Armenia occupying 20 percent of the other country including the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region has been under control of ethnic Armenian forces since a war ended in 1994. Neighboring areas are also under Armenia’s control and there is a line of contact between the two sides. Azernews reported Thursday that Armenian forces had violated a ceasefire 25 times in the past 24 hours, a continuation of broken ceasefires in previous weeks.
There are no diplomatic relations between the two.
Arsenal wants assurances on safety
Arsenal has shown concern there weren’t “acceptable guarantees” from UEFA that Mkhitaryan would be safe to travel to the country due to the conflict. Mkhitaryan sat out the first Europa League group game in Qarabag over the same safety issues, but sitting out a final is a different beast.
The Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry gave the team and Mkhitaryan assurances last week. A ministry spokeswoman said, per The AP:
"Many major sports events have been hosted in Azerbaijan, and Armenian athletes have taken part in them. Sports and politics are separate."
UEFA said, per The AP, it received the assurances from the country’s soccer governing body but not the government.
“The safety and security of our players is of paramount importance,” an Arsenal spokesperson said, via The Guardian. “We are seeking guarantees from UEFA that it will be safe for Henrikh Mikhitaryan to travel to Baku for the Europa League final, which both Arsenal and Micki require for him to be included in our squad.”
Mikhitaryan played in 11 of the 14 games in the competition and has played the most minutes of any midfielder on the team. A final decision on his status is expected by next week.
Arsenal fans face travel conflicts
Arsenal and Chelsea fans were each given 6,000 tickets by UEFA in a stadium that holds 68,700, yet Arsenal representatives told The Associated Press it’s unlikely they’ll sell out due to “unacceptable” and “extreme” travel problems.
The Associated Press reported a lack of flights to Baku from Western Europe.
“Moving forward we would urge UEFA to ensure that supporter logistics and requirements are a key part of any future decisions for final venues as what has happened this season is unacceptable, and cannot be repeated.”
Azerbaijan Sports Minister Azad Rahimov defended the city as a deserving host, per The AP, and said he believes people will enjoy being in Baku.
It’s Arsenal’s first European final in 13 years. It’s playing for its first continental trophy since 1994 when it won the Winners’ Cup.
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