Chelsea Baku to Life


Europa League Final 2019: Chelsea 4:1 Arsenal
Baku, Azerbaijan

Well done Chelsea.

No-one would have bet on a 4-1 thrashing in a Europa League final of a side led by that competition's specialist winner Unai Emery.

The manner of their victory was comprehensive in the end. Worthy winners indeed.

After bossing the first couple of minutes, the Blues surrendered most of the ball to the Gunners for the rest of the first half. As Arsenal's high press stopped Chelsea attacking in numbers, the match threatened to turn into a possession v counter-attacking narrative.

Arsenal went into the dressing room reasonably confident of qualifying for next season's Champions League, but tellingly it was Petr Cech whose gloves had been dirtied in the first 45.

When it came to Chelsea's goal blitz in the third quarter of the match, the movement and firepower of their front line Olivier Giroud, Eden Hazard and Pedro, were too much for Arsenal's pedestrian defence. After their fourth hit the net, it briefly seemed Chelsea could go on and emulate Manchester City's massacre of Watford in the FA Cup final.

At the other end Arsenal's strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were firing blanks all evening, to the immense frustration of their fans, while Mesut Ozil turned in another of his drowsy, zombie-esque offerings on a key occasion. All three of their big guns choked in their biggest game of the season.

Emery's bitter anguish on the touchline was palpable. He kept gesticulating and pacing the technical area even when all was lost but left with his hands in his pockets, alone and distraught.

No one should be judged too harshly on one season which featured a top five finish and a cup final, but then his opposite number Maurizio Sarri had gone that much further in his inaugural campaign at Stamford Bridge.

After the Kepa fiasco in the League Cup final and increasingly loud grumbles from fans, Sarri's goose looked cooked. A few months later and Sarri has bagged the Europa League, a place in next season's European Super Cup and after finishing third in the Premier League, a spot in the Champions League;  smiles all round.

There must still be doubt around his job however with Juventus knocking on the door and offering him an escape from the obvious stress and depression he has felt at times this season.

The imminent loss of Hazard to Real Madrid and next season's transfer ban will not make it easier, although the Blues have a sound squad and players on loan who could be recalled like Victor Moses, Tammy Abraham, Kenedy and Curt Zouma.

The incoming American Christian Pulisic is earmarked to step into Hazard's large shoes, but no-one expects him to be match that level immediately.

Hazard's final match for the Blues was a fine swansong, a two-girl flourish and several thrilling dribbles displaying his exceptional close control and ability to shift direction at speed. He is a big loss to English football.

Chelsea Baku to Life
Chelsea Baku to Life

At the other end, one of the world's greatest goalkeepers hung up his gloves for the last time with a loss, removing his finalist's medal unceremoniously as soon as he had donned it and shedding a tear or two.

Cech has been an outstanding professional who leaves the field having won every domestic and European club trophy, a slew of Premier League awards and 124 caps for his nation, appearing at the World Cup and four European Championships for the Czech Republic.

When he rejoins the Blues as their technical director this summer, Cech will hug his rivals from tonight and might even share a puff of Sarri's cigar.

Baku, the most controversial final venue imaginable, lived up to its billing as the wrongest of wrong choices with empty seats and an atmosphere which felt almost ghostly at times, transmitted via television to watching millions.

What should have been a tense and fiery clash between two London rivals was redolent of a pre-season friendly in another continent with only a scattering of visiting supporters who had completed the almighty and excessively costly trek from England.

The sub-par atmosphere was exacerbated by the stadium having being designed for athletics, not football, with the concomitant faraway sightlines and distance from the action an eight-lane running track always brings.

It was both clubs' final match of the season and the usual maelstrom of alternate sadness and joy filled the air, the stands and the players' boots. Only half those attending a final can leave the ground happy.

Sarri was the biggest winner. His success in repairing the open wounds in his dressing-room earlier this season has been an immense achievement, crowned by this remarkably comfortable capture of the old UEFA Cup.

Chelsea Stadium.

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(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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