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Lacazette to channel Baku humiliation as Arsenal seek trophy to 'save' their season

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The arduous flight home from Baku felt even longer for Alexandre Lacazette and his Arsenal team-mates at the end of last season, when the squad headed for their holidays with the dreadful taste of defeat lingering in their mouths.

Thrashed by London rivals Chelsea in the final game of the campaign and denied a Champions League place as a result - for a footballer, it does not get much worse.

"Nobody was talking," Lacazette recalls. "It was a long flight. Really silent. Maybe the worst flight I have ever had. Hopefully for everyone, the ones who played will not forget the final last season.

"Everybody has to find their own motivation for this game."

As it turned out, the Europa League final of 2019 was only the first chapter for this current Arsenal side. Chapter two comes this afternoon, when they seek revenge against Chelsea in a game with a remarkably similar dynamic: Arsenal must win to reach next season's Europa League, while Chelsea have nothing extra to gain from victory.

"I think that was their strength [in Baku]," Lacazette says of the 4-1 defeat. "They had nothing to play for and they had no pressure. So it will be the same this weekend. But we have to just play our game and not put pressure on ourselves. Most of the players are excited because we know we can save our season with a trophy."

The pressure is there, though. For Arsenal and for Lacazette. The Europa League is not the Champions League, but it is better than nothing.

Arsenal desperately need the finances of European football if they are to strengthen this summer, or indeed to ensure their key players stay where they are.

"Players who have a lot of ambition want to play in Europe," Lacazette says. "It will be easier to sign new players and to keep all the players in the group with the Europa League."

For Lacazette himself, this FA Cup final represents another chance to win his first piece of major silverware with Arsenal. He is three seasons into his career with the club, having arrived for around £50m in the summer of 2017. There have been high points - he was named the club's player of the year last season - but he does not hide his disappointment at Arsenal's struggles. "I came to Arsenal to win trophies," he says.

This year, by Lacazette's own admission, has been tough. An ankle injury in pre-season continued to be a problem for weeks, and the Frenchman looked sluggish for months. From mid-December to mid-February, he did not score a goal.

"It has been a difficult season, maybe the most difficult of my career. But I know I learnt a lot this season, mentally, thinking more about the team than scoring goals when I had my long period without goals. I know this season when we talk about statistics, it is not the best one.

"But it is still only one season and I know next season is going to be totally different for me."

This confidence that the future will be bright is a result of the work of Mikel Arteta, who has impressed the Arsenal squad since his arrival as head coach in December. The messages on the training ground are certainly clearer now than they were under Unai Emery, who had the unenviable task of navigating the early turmoil of the post-Arsene Wenger era.

"Arsene was there for 22 years so he had his own habits, he controlled everything. So, when there was a change we needed time to rebuild everything and to be more stable. We tried with Unai but in the end it was not what everybody wanted."

And now? "Now the players understand more what the manager wants and with time it will be easier for all the team. I am positive, I am looking forward. I know it is going to be better. The future is going to be more shiny for the team. We know the coach is clear about this. He came here to put Arsenal top of the league."

What seems certain is that there will be drama today, as there was in both of their league meetings this season. At the Emirates in December, Chelsea scored twice in the final seven minutes to secure victory in Arteta's first home game in charge.

A month later, at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal somehow fought back to claim a 2-2 draw despite playing for 64 minutes with 10 men following David Luiz's red card.

"I think we created a bit of strength that day," Lacazette says. "We were 10 versus 11 in Stamford Bridge, and it is always hard to play there. And we stayed together. I think that day we created something."

At Wembley, they can build on that. They must build on that.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk


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