Eden Hazard scored twice in what could be his farewell appearance as Chelsea swept away Arsenal in the Europa League final in Baku, winning 4-1 to hand Maurizio Sarri his first major trophy as a coach.
Olivier Giroud broke the deadlock with a header four minutes after the break and inside 23 minutes, Pedro and a brace from Eden Hazard, one from the spot, condemned us to another year in Europe’s second-tier competition.
Substitute Alex Iwobi briefly gave the Gunners hope of a miracle with the best goal of the game, a fine volley from the edge of the area, but it was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of brightness on a nightmare evening in Baku.
Having had two weeks to chew over his team selection, the boss decided to go with a 3-4-1-2 formation. Petr Cech started in goal – his final game of a prestigious playing career – with Sokratis, Monreal and Koscielny making up the backline, flanked by Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles. Xhaka and Torreira were charged with anchoring midfield while Ozil, in the absence of Mkhitaryan and Ramsey, got the nod in the number 10 role behind Aubameyang and Lacazette.
Uefa’s rules for the final stipulated that we could pick 12 substitutes so amongst the usual back-up, youngsters Saka, Amaechi, Nketiah and Willock all took a place on the bench. Welbeck’s presence after six months out injured was also noteworthy.
Warm conditions, an very late kick-off, a subdued atmosphere, a lengthy two-week gap since a competitive game, nerves, a combination of them all? Whatever it was, both sides looked sluggish in the opening stages. Passes were misplaced. Players slipped over. Fouls were made. The cut and thrust you might expect from a London derby was nowhere to be seen.
Hazard looked dangerous making his usual darting runs. Maitland-Niles and Torreira dealt with him in physical fashion. In reply, Luiz took out Lacazette. Bit by bit, we started to take control of things. Aubameyang snatched at a shot from the edge of the box after a nervy punch clear by Kepa and Kolasinac found good space behind Azpilicueta but the couldn’t squeeze a cross into the box.
Moments later, Lacazette pounced on a loose ball in the Chelsea box, got his foot to the ball before Kepa and was clipped by the keeper. The Italian officials deferred the decision to VAR – operational for the first time in this season’s Europa League – and it was ruled no penalty. It was debatable given the obvious contact.
The tempo increased. A break from Kante down the right and a quick first-time ball to Giroud raised pulses in the Gunners defence, but our former striker bundled the ball out of play.
Aubameyang taunted David Luiz and hung up a dinked cross that Azpilicueta had to clear. Then Xhaka clipped the bar after letting rip with his right foot from 30-yards.
On several occasions, Kolasinac served as a great outlet on the left, but time and again his end product was lacking. A pile-driver deflected wide and a speculative overhit cross was punched clear. Had he looked up there were men waiting on both occasions.
At the other end, Hazard inspired one-touch triangular football on the edge of our box required serious concentration to thwart. Sokratis did well to block efforts from Emerson and Azpilicueta and Cech beat away another shot from the Brazilian taken on the diagonal.
Chelsea, who’d been relatively conservative, definitely ended the half stronger and were it not for a huge save by Cech they might have had the lead. After quick interplay, the ball was fed to Giroud who, with his left foot, cut a shot across the keeper. The veteran who’d initially moved right, got down low to his left to parry clear. It was a big moment.
Chelsea carried their momentum into the second half and killed the game inside 20 minutes. We were lucky when Giroud failed with a left foot effort within a couple of minutes of the restart and that the referee ignored a Monreal foul on Hazard in the build-up.
Giroud was not so profligate on 49 minutes. There didn’t seem to be much danger when Emerson aimed a cross into the middle of the box, but as we know from his time at the Emirates, the Frenchman is great in the air. He beat Koscielny, arching down low to arrow a diving header beyond Cech. He fell to his knees and pointed to the sky in celebration. Seemingly trying to control his emotions. (1-0)
Time for the Gunners to step it up. Time to show some urgency. The 4,000 travelling Gooners knew as much and did their best to fill the cavernous Olympic Stadium with their noise. The best we could muster was a shot by Torreira which was blocked at close quarters by Kante.
On 59 minutes, the Blues dealt us a body blow. Hazard’s cutback was met by Pedro who swept home first time. Another clinical finish to double the lead. (2-0)
We were left with no choice to push men forward and hope that we could deal with Chelsea’s pace on the break. It didn’t make for pretty watching. In fact, it got worse.
With Pedro dancing around the edge of the box and nobody wanting to tackle him, the Spaniard had time to find Giroud who was bundled over from behind by Maitland-Niles. The referee pointed to the spot. Hazard stepped up and put the ball straight down the middle. (3-0)
Unai Emery reacted by taking off Nacho Monreal and a tearful Lucas Torreira. We switched to a back four, Xhaka slipping into left-back, and Guendouzi and Iwobi taking up positions in midfield. The Nigerian made an instant impact smashing home a volley from the edge of the area after a half-cleared corner fell to him. (3-1)
Hopes of a comeback were immediately extinguished. Hazard won the ball high up the park, gave it to Giroud, who clipped a cross to the back post for the onrushing Belgian to beat Cech. The Frenchman’s pass was near identical to that which Ramsey converted in the FA Cup final two years ago, that time for us. Being subjected to the replay was cruel. (4-1)
The final stages passed in a bit of a blur as if we’d collectively suffered a concussion. Joe Willock came on for the ineffective Mesut Ozil, Cech denied substitute Willian and Kepa denied Lacazette when the striker had a chance to reduce the deficit again. Willock really should have had a goal but having been put through on goal by Lacazette he opened his body too much and curled wide.
The end of the game came as something of a relief. What can you say when you concede four goals in the second half of a major European final? We arrived in Azerbaijan with more than hope and we left with our tails between our legs, losing a game, as we have several times this season, after a total meltdown. This isn’t anything new. We’ve been here before. It just hurts more because this really mattered.
This was a huge game. An opportunity to consolidate improvements. A chance to get back in the big time. To prove to our rivals both here and abroad that we’re back. We squandered it. We really messed up.
How damaging this proves to be, only time will tell. In the short-term, we’re left to lick our wounds. We’ll go again in August.