Maurizio Sarri had never reached a final of any competition until this first season of his in English football, and he is still yet to win one, but there may be few opportunities better than the great unloved Europa League to claim his first major trophy in 30 years of management.
Chelsea have cruised through this competition and this was a lot simpler than the scoreline might have suggested, the deficit being narrowed by two mighty swings of the right foot from Slavia Prague’s Petr Sevcik in the second half. A Europa League semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt now awaits Chelsea, with the German club having staged a mighty comeback to beat Benfica 2-0 at home and progress on the away goals rule.
In the other half of the draw it gets rather more interesting, with Arsenal progressing into the final four and setting up the possibility of Sarri going head to head with another Premier League rookie, Unai Emery, for their first trophies of a new era. Emery is a Europa League specialist of course, while maurizio Sarri’s one experience of a cup final, at Wembley in February, went so badly in the end with all that business over Kepa Arrizabalaga, that he might have preferred it never happened.
Frankfurt are currently fourth in the Bundesliga and one can only assume that they might at least prove worthier opposition to Chelsea than they have encountered thus far in a competition they never really wanted to play in. They scored four times in the first 27 minutes of this game, and taking a 4-1 lead into half-time then allowed a spirited Slavia back in, courtesy of two booming right foot hits from Sevcik, a January signing for his club.
Having dominated before the break against Slavia, who are within a point of the Czech title, the two away goals made for a mildly panicky last few minutes that took the edge off the night for Chelsea. Nevertheless they have won all but one of the 12 games played so far in this competition, and that draw against the Hungarians Vidi was a dead rubber in the group stage. They have conceded seven and scored 30 and it is hard to say that they have really been tested yet.
Maurizio Sarri once again lamented his team’s failure to re-impose themselves after the break. “As usual in the last two months, we started very badly in the second half,” he said. “We need to solve this problem. In the last 10 matches, we started like this in the second half. It’s a big problem.”
He said that an ankle injury for Eden Hazard was not serious and despite the two second-half goals for Slavia was sufficiently confident to take his best player off in the 64th minute. The defeat to Liverpool on Sunday had ended a revival of four straight wins after Chelsea lost at Goodison Park. Now they have until Monday to recover for Burnley before the critical game for fourth place at Old Trafford a week on Sunday.
Even so, it might be the case that winning the Europa League could be a simpler route back into the Champions League than breaking into the top four. “We want to get to the final and win the competition, of course, but we know it’ll be difficult,” maurizio Sarri said. “Eintracht are a great team with a wonderful striker, [Luka] Jovic. In the other semi-final, there are two very good teams.”
He allowed himself a little joke that he was sorry his former club Napoli had been eliminated by Arsenal. “If the final is Chelsea v Napoli, I’m sure at the end of the match I’d be really very happy. So I’m unhappy to hear they are out. For me, it’s very important to get to the final. This time I don’t want to play the final; I want to win the final.”
Slavia were so open in the first half that Chelsea were able to pass through them. Pedro chipped the goalkeeper Ondrej Kolar for the first having exchanged passes twice with first Cesar Azpilicueta and then Ross Barkley. Pedro should have scored the second when Hazard’s cross from the left reached him unmarked at the back post, but the Spanish winger got his bearings wrong and hit the post. The rebound struck poor old Simon Deli and went in before he could react.
The third fell to Olivier Giroud from a Pedro cutback. The Frenchman is the competition’s top goalscorer with ten goals in his 11 Europa League appearances. There was a big header from Tomas Soucek direct from a corner for Slavia’s first. The fourth goal of the game for Chelsea arrived soon after, a second from Pedro when Giroud’s shot from Emerson Palmieri’s cross was saved.
“We did something wrong, in the first 10-15 minutes of the second half,” Sarri said later. “They scored twice from 18 metres without being opposed. Sevcik’s first beat Arrizabalaga at his near post, and the second – a real beauty – flew past the Chelsea goalkeeper’s right hand. It certainly made for a better game in the second half, although Chelsea held out in a competition they won in 2013 under Rafael Benitez – another season when there was disharmony around the manager.