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Why will Henrikh Mkhitaryan not play for Arsenal against Chelsea in the Europa League final?

17:20 BST 22/05/2019
Henrikh Mkhitaryan Arsenal 2018-19
The 30-year-old will not be part of the Gunners squad to travel to Baku for the big showdown against the Blues due to political reasons

At the beginning of the season, Henrikh Mkhitaryan indicated that one of his ambitions with Arsenal for the year was to win the Europa League.

The Gunners have since played 14 times in the competition, flirted with defeat against Rennes in the last 16, but ultimately have progressed to a final showdown with Chelsea.

However, when Unai Emery’s side walk out onto the pitch of the Olympic Stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan, Mkhitaryan will not be among their number.

The 30-year-old will not travel with the squad because of fears over his safety due to his Armenian nationality.

Tensions run high between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh mountains. Indeed, the nations have been locked in a state of war since 1988, though fighting has largely stopped since a 1994 ceasefire. 

Azerbaijan forbids citizens of Armenia from entering the country, although special dispensation is often provided. UEFA had confirmed that Mkhitaryan would have been granted a visa if necessary, but Arsenal have chosen to leave the player behind in London.

A statement from Gunners on their official website read: “We are very disappointed to announce that Henrikh Mkhitaryan will not be travelling with the squad for our UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea.

“We have thoroughly explored all the options for Micki to be part of the squad but after discussing this with Micki and his family we have collectively agreed he will not be in our travelling party.

“We have written to UEFA expressing our deep concerns about this situation. Micki has been a key player in our run to the final so this is a big loss for us from a team perspective.

“We’re also very sad that a player will miss out on a major European final in circumstances such as this, as it is something that comes along very rarely in a footballer’s career.

“Micki will continue to be part of our preparations until we depart for Baku at the weekend.”

Unsurprisingly, the player’s stance has meant that UEFA’s decision to award the fixture to Baku has drawn criticism, notably from Arsenal star Laurent Koscienly.

“I think UEFA needs to know about the different problems they can have with the politics in the country. When one country has a problem with another they should not give the final to that country,” the Frenchman said.

European football’s governing body has issued a statement defending itself and stressing that Mkhitaryan’s safety would have been “guaranteed”.

“Working alongside Arsenal FC, UEFA sought and received assurances regarding the player’s safety in Azerbaijan from the highest authorities in the country,” it said.

“As a result of these guarantees, a comprehensive security plan was developed and given to the club. 

“While the club acknowledges the efforts that UEFA and the Azeri government have gone to in this matter, we respect the personal decision not to travel with the player.”

Tahir Taghizadeh, the Azerbaijani ambassador to the UK, seemed to suggest that the player might be playing “political games” by making such a decision.

“This is a Class A event, if our purpose is to play political games around it it is something different, you are being paid as a footballer, not a politician, let's leave other issues aside,” he told Sky Sports.

“My message to Mkhitaryan would be: you're a footballer, you want to play football? Go to Baku, you are safe there. If you want to play the issue then that's a different story.

“What I can guarantee is that the Azerbaijan government will do everything that needs to be done and provide safety and security for every fan, player and staff member coming to this game.”

While the player has not commented on the matter, Emery has been careful to be diplomatic in his speech over the situation.

“It's bad news. We need to understand the political problem, but we must respect it," Emery told a news conference on Tuesday. 

“I spoke with Mkhitaryan this morning but it's a very personal issue. He wants to play with the team. He spoke to his family.

“I come from the Basque country and we have a big political problem, too. I can understand his decision.”

Has Mkhitaryan missed games in Armenia before?

This is not the first time that Mkhitaryan has missed a match in Azerbaijan during his career.

While playing for Borussia Dortmund, he was left out of a squad to face Azeri side Qabala in 2015, and earlier this season he was not involved as Arsenal faced Qarabag in the group stages.

His absence was greeted with mocking from home coach Gurban Gurbanov, who said: “Arsenal may be afraid that in front of 60,000 Azerbaijani fans, Mkhitaryan has some pressure and that is why they didn't send him.

“I didn't want politics to interrupt the sport but we could not do anything on this issue.

“If Mkhitaryan came to Azerbaijan it would not be the first time an Armenian sportsman had done so. A lot have come to Azerbaijan. It is the choice of Arsenal that they didn’t send him here.”