Chelsea thrashed Arsenal 4-1 in Baku to win the Europa League as Maurizio Sarri won the first trophy of his managerial career and condemned the Gunners to another season in Europe’s second-tier competition.
Olivier Giroud opened the scoring against his former club four minutes after half-time with a superb header before Pedro’s first-time strike and a brace from Eden Hazard secured the Blues their first European silverware since lifting this trophy in 2013.
Arsenal’s 25-year wait for a major continental honour goes on. They have only substitute Alex Iwobi’s thunderous volley to take home from Azerbaijan as consolation after a dismal second-half display in which they conceded four times in 23 minutes.
Chelsea boss Sarri, under pressure for much of the season, was able to savour a landmark moment in his career but Unai Emery must now contemplate continuing his rebuild of the club following Arsene Wenger’s departure without Champions League football and the resultant modest transfer budget of around £40million.
The Blues sprung a major surprise at kick-off as N’Golo Kante was named in the starting line-up, making his first appearance since beating Watford on May 5.
Sarri last night described Kante’s chances of playing as “50-50” – and that was before leaving the squad’s final training session prematurely – but he overcame a knee injury to line up alongside Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic in midfield.
Emery had insisted he was waiting until the last moment to decide whether Petr Cech would make his final appearance before retirement.
But it would have been a huge shock had he missed out against his former club, despite some raising concerns of a conflict of interest given widespread reports the 37-year-old will take up a technical director role at Stamford Bridge in the summer.
Of bigger concern in the build-up was the attendance with both clubs unable to sell out their modest 6,000 allocation.
There were more Arsenal fans than their Chelsea counterparts inside the ground but thousands of empty seats were visible all around the stadium.
Within the first few minutes, a pocket of Blues supporters chanted “F*** off UEFA, is this what you want?”
Arsenal supporters sang about Henrikh Mkhitaryan, absent after opting against travelling due to political tensions in the region between Azerbaijan and his home country, Armenia, as the game began at a pedestrian pace with a pre-season feel in humid conditions despite the 11pm local time kick-off.
The Gunners had the first chance of note. Ainsley Maitland-Niles – the only Englishman to start this all-London affair – scampered down the right and crossed to the near post.
Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga elected to punch the ball away but did so unconvincingly and it fell straight to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Premier League’s joint Golden Boot winner could only drag his effort wide of goal from 16 yards, however.
Alexandre Lacazette then burst into the box and went down under Kepa’s challenge. The Brazilian failed to make contact with the ball but he didn’t touch Lacazette either and Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi signalled a goal kick.
Arsenal were on top and Granit Xhaka almost gave them the lead with a typically fierce long-range drive but his right-foot shot grazed the top of the crossbar on his way over.
Chelsea began to grow into the contest thereafter with Emerson forcing Cech into his first save of note but his second was much better, getting down smartly to his left to keep out Giroud’s low drive after Jorginho had intelligently laid off Hazard’s sharp forward pass.
The clock ticked past midnight as both sets of players re-merged for the second half and it turned out to be Giroud’s witching hour.
Emerson crossed from the left and Giroud got himself in front of Laurent Koscielny and stooped to guide an excellent header inside Cech’s near post.
The motion meant he ended on his knees but Giroud opted not to extend the celebration against his former employers. That goal meant Giroud ends the season as the Europa League topscorer with 11 goals for 14 games.
Arsenal failed to muster much by way of response and suddenly they were two behind on the hour mark. Hazard found Pedro in the box and his first-time finish beat Cech.
Arsenal were imploding. Five minutes later, Pedro drove into the heart of Arsenal’s defence and waited an age before releasing Giroud in the box. In his desperation to close down the space, Maitland-Niles barged into the Frenchman and a penalty was the inevitable outcome.
Hazard duly converted, rolling the ball to Cech’s right the split second after he had committed left.
Emery immediately introduced Iwobi and Matteo Guendouzi for Nacho Monreal and Torreira. Iwobi gave the Gunners a glimmer of hope with a sumptuous 69th-minute strike but any momentum was snuffed out three minutes later as Hazard and Giroud combined superbly for the former to sweep home his second and Chelsea’s fourth.
Emery hooked Mesut Ozil for teenager Joe Willock – a remarkable substitution in the circumstances – but it was Lacazette who went closest, forcing Kepa into a brilliant save as the game entered the final 10 minutes.
Willock then missed a glorious chance to create a nervy finale, curling wide when unmarked inside the box. Hazard was substituted late on in what could be his final appearance before a widely-anticipated summer move to Real Madrid while speculation over Sarri’s future will continue.
And yet, despite all the drama surrounding them, Chelsea delivered when it truly mattered.
Source: Evening Standard