Eden Hazard sparkles as Chelsea crush Arsenal in Baku
In sterile atmosphere Sarri’s side cruised past London rivals to win Europa League
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard scores their fourth goal during the Europa League final win over Arsenal. Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
Chelsea 4 Arsenal 1
It was hard to begrudge Maurizio Sarri his moment. Chelsea’s head coach has endured such a difficult first season in English football, his achievement in steering the team to a third-place finish almost forgotten in the traumas, dissent and occasional tantrums delivered from the sidelines. This could yet prove to be his last match in charge, with Juventus apparently eager to lure him back to Italy. If so, at least he went out on a high.
The Europa League was claimed in spectacular fashion here in front of an often absent owner, a drab first half forgotten as Chelsea roused themselves to run riot, slicing through a desperate Arsenal defence at will. Sarri had never hoisted a major trophy before in a coaching career that has spanned two decades, but he joined a club who tend to claim silverware even when apparently unsettled. This all felt familiar.
It was appropriate that Eden Hazard, another likely to exit with Real Madrid circling, would put Arsenal to the sword. The Belgian had already scored from the spot when, with the contest in its last quarter, he exchanged passes with Olivier Giroud before scuttling round the back of a flustered rearguard to reach the return and steer home his team’s fourth goal in 23 minutes. Hazard had always promised his parting gift would be a glittering trophy. “If we lose against Arsenal, it’d be a disaster for the club,” he had said. Their opponents’ dismal defence made that an unlikely scenario, even if few would have predicted that riotous second period.
There had been something rather strange about this occasion from the outset, which was perhaps to be expected given a London derby had been transplanted around 2,500 miles east to the shores of the Caspian with normal time to be played out either side of midnight.
Indeed, the soporific nature of much of the football through a scrappy first half had felt depressingly appropriate. There were plenty of supporters present clad in red and blue, waving plastic flags and pantomime booing every mention of an opponent that boomed out over the PA system, though, even with the influx of fans based outside England who had flocked to Baku, the stadium was far from full. The banks of empty seats felt damning.
The rather eerie atmosphere was akin to that of a pre-season friendly, the kind geared to extending brand awareness and invariably hosted in a steamy oriental summer, but in a stadium marginally too big for the occasion.
Roman Abramovich was in attendance, shuddering through the plod of the first competitive game he has witnessed his team play in person this season. He would have been cheered to see Hazard spark belatedly into life late in the opening period, feeding Giroud who forced a sharp save from Petr Cech – Chelsea’s incoming director of football – six minutes from the interval. Yet there had been precious little else to excite the oligarch.
Sarri’s side Chelsea had been too cautious, their ambitions perhaps restricted by N’Golo Kanté’s lack of fizz in midfield. That the Frenchman was able to feature at all felt vaguely miraculous given he had appeared reluctant to twist on his right leg during a brief appearance at training on the eve of the final. He wore his knee in a brace. Sarri had not even been sure he would make it through the warm-up.
What impetus there had been had been generated by Arsenal, whether it was Granit Xhaka pummelling a shot from distance that flicked the top of the crossbar or Alexandre Lacazette wriggling away from César Azpilicueta to bear down on goal. The France forward had taken a touch to guide the ball around the on-rushing Kepa Arrizabalaga – a bag of nerves through the opening exchanges – before crumpling to the turf calling for a penalty. The referee, Gianluca Rocchi, waved away the appeals, and the VAR did not flag up a clear and obvious error. What contact between goalkeeper and striker had been suspiciously slight.
The onus had always been on Arsenal to secure the Champions League qualification that would enable them to fund a more extensive revamp this summer. How they must have craved an advantage upon which to cling. Even that desperation does not justify their capitulation after the interval. That 20-minute period at the start of the second half will haunt Unai Emery, his players suddenly rendered forlorn, their defence utterly bypassed.
It was Giroud, a friend turned foe, who prised them apart first, diving in ahead of Laurent Koscielny to meet Emerson Palmieri’s whipped centre with his header skipping up off the turf to nestle inside Cech’s near post. It was the Frenchman’s 11th goal in the Europa League this season, establishing him as the competition’s top scorer, with Chelsea instantly transformed into a ruthless collective.
The contest had edged to the hour-mark by the time Jorginho slipped Hazard free down the left, the Belgian skipping inside the penalty area before opening up his body to square for Pedro. The Spaniard’s side-foot finish was eased beyond the exposed Cech.
Panic had long since set in, which might explain Ainsley Maitland-Niles’s barging of Giroud off the ball to prompt the penalty stroked in by Hazard.
That Alex Iwobi, recently introduced, would crunch a fine volley from distance back across a diving Kepa and into the net merely reinforced the point that Thursday’s offering had been distinctly more appealing than Wednesday’s, but Chelsea would not be denied.
Hazard’s glorious fourth snuffed out any chance of an unlikely comeback and Sarri could pace his technical area through the final exchanges knowing he had broken his duck with a major trophy claimed. A few yards down the touchline, Emery licked his wounds.
His removal of Mesut Özil from the fray, replaced by the youngster Joe Willock, rather summed it all up. This season has unravelled. – Guardian