Andrew Flint, BAKU —
Chelsea vs Arsenal – Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard put on a devastating second-half masterclass to tear Arsenal to shreds after a desperately dull opening period had threatened penalties.
Chelsea vs Arsenal
Goals: 1-0 (Olivier Giroud 49’), 2-0 (Pedro 60’), 3-0(Eden Hazard 65’ pen); 3-1(Alex Iwobi 69’), 4-1(Eden Hazard 72’)
Hazard all but admits his departure on a high
Eden Hazard has danced and driven his way through countless Premier League defences, and in recent months has carried the weakest Chelsea team in his time in England. Without his magic, Maurizio Sarri’s side would certainly have struggled to make the Europa League Final. “I think this is goodbye,” he said to BT Sport after the final whistle, “but in football, you never know.” With his side under a two-window transfer ban, this will not be comfortably received.
Coping with his imminent departure will be near impossible. Against Arsenal, he was everything good and bright about his side’s play. Olivier Giroud’s link-up play was key to two of the goals, but even the World Cup winner paled in comparison to the Belgian maestro. In Sarri’s much-maligned system, the sharpness of mind of a wide forward is critical to make the most efficient use of possession high up the pitch. What boggles the mind is what Hazard could potentially be capable of if surrounded by players of at least a similar calibre.
The long, long road to Baku
Off-pitch headlines had centred around the hugely controversial choice of Azerbaijan as the host country for the Europa League Final. The political ramifications over Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan travelling to a country still at war with his own led to the former Borussia Dortmund man staying at home. UEFA and Azeri security authorities have offered their assurances over his safety. On the morning of the game itself, however, fans wearing shirts with his name on the back were being stopped by police without just a hint of menace.
Even aside from the hugely important matter of player safety, the sheer logistics were maddening. Chelsea fans had been recommended to try and fly to Tbilisi and finish their journey overland to cut costs slightly. Whatever measured had been suggested, around half of the tickets designated to Arsenal and Chelsea fans were said to have been returned. Huge gaps were clear to be seen in the corners, and hardly surprisingly, the atmosphere suffered. Perhaps in future provisions can be made to avoid such an arduous route when two teams from so far away make the final.
Champions – but what next?
Chelsea’s season looked doomed for a painful descent into disappointment a mere matter of weeks ago. Maurizio Sarri was being slaughtered in the press, Kepa Arrizabalaga displayed the most brazen, public denial of a manager, Sarriball was disintegrating, and Champions League qualification looked hopeless. Now, the former Napoli boss has been heavily linked with the Juventus job with a dominant team display in the final of the Europa League – his first major trophy – has seemingly united his squad into his vision finally and has delivered the riches of group-stage Champions League football.
Eden Hazard’s worst-kept public secret of possibly/definitely leaving the club is the first pin to prick the bubble. Then when you add on the transfer ban facing the club and the serious injury to one-time Bayern Munich target Callum Hudson-Odoi, not to mention the talk surrounding Sarri’s possible return to his homeland, and suddenly questions must be asked already. It is churlish to devalue a European trophy win in the immediate aftermath in one sense. For Sarri to turn around such a pregnant atmosphere enveloping the club so clinically deserves endless praise. For all the euphoria that left the Baku Olympic Stadium in the early hours though, next season will be a completely different sotry.
Chelsea vs Arsenal – Lineups
Arrizabalaga – Azpilicueta, Christensen, Luiz, Emerson – Kanté, Jorginho, Kovačić (Barkley 76’) – Pedro (Willian 71’), Giroud, Hazard (Zappacosta 88’)
Manager: Maurizio Sarri
Čech – Sokratis, Koscielny, Monreal (Guendouzi 6’) – Kolasinač, Xhaka, Torreira (Iwobi 66’), Maitland-Niles – Özil (Willock 77’) – Aubameyang, Lacazette
Manager: Unai Emery
Andrew Flint is an English freelance football writer living in Tyumen, Western Siberia, with his wife and two daughters. He has featured on These Football Times, Russian Football News, Four Four Two and Sovetski Sport, mostly focusing on full-length articles about derbies, youth development and the game in Russia. Due to his love for FC Tyumen, he is particularly interested in lower league Russian football and is looking to establish himself in time for the 2018 World Cup. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewMijFlint.