By Samindra Kunti in Baku, Azerbaijan
May 30 – Chelsea demolished London rivals Arsenal to win the Europa League 4-1 after a soporific first-half and a 23-minute second-half onslaught that left Arsenal reeling and reflecting on a failed season. The North Londoners will miss out on Champions League football for a fourth consecutive season.
Eden Hazard led Chelsea with a brace of gaols and an assist to hand Maurizio Sarri his first-ever trophy. The Belgian star’s second half masterclass demonstrated why he is so coveted by Real Madrid and how Arsenal increasingly have been left behind by a slate of English clubs. Shortly after the break friend-turned-foe Oliver Giroud inflicted the first damage on Arsenal with a crafty header from Emerson Palmieri’s after a first stanza that had felt slightly depressing in the eerie atmosphere of a less than full Olympic Stadium, even if UEFA claimed that “all tickets for the UEFA Europa League final have been sold.”
In a statement the governing body wrote that “the vast majority of tickets that were returned by the two finalist clubs have been sold on the local market where demand exceeded supply. Some tickets purchased by and subsequently returned by Arsenal FC could nevertheless not be resold on the local market due to security considerations, as such tickets are spread inside the core of the Arsenal FC section.”
Having bought the tickets the locals must have decided to stay away as kick off revealed empty-seats galore. To be honest they weren’t missing much to begin with.
The first 45 minutes had a far-away pre-season friendly feel to this London derby that took place 2500 miles from the English capital. With fans left scrambling, frustrated or just logistically unable to undertake the transcontinental hike to the Azeri capital this final was going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons. Even so, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin bravely insisted at a news conference before the final that the recent events will have no bearing whatsoever on Baku hosting four games at Euro 2020 or the operational implications. Indeed, locals around Baku were generally both welcoming and eager that visitors had a good experience of their remarkable city.
“We would not reassess the appointment of the hosts for Euro 2020,” said Ceferin. “That is decided. It was decided a long time ago, but it will stay that way. You know, it is the same problem for people from Baku to come to Dublin as for people from Dublin to come to Baku, so logistic problems – the distance is the same from London to Baku and from Baku to London. We have Bucharest for example, we have different venues. It is a Pan-European Europe where we want to show that football can bring people together and of course it would be easier to come to London or to Rome or to Munich than to come to Baku or Bucharest, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t play.”
In the match itself it wasn’t until the 28th minute that signs of life were identified when Granit Xhaka threatened from outside the box. But generally Arsenal failed to create clear-cut chances.
Their opponents slowly restored the game’s balance and Petr Cech, soon to make the much shorter trek back across London to rejoin Chelsea as sporting director, was forced into a fine save. It was a sign of the riotous four-goal salvo to come. When Pedro swept in Chelsea’s second goal, Arsenal’s resolve was broken and Hazard – who after the full-time whistle gave the biggest hint yet that he is Madrid-bound saying that “I think it’s goodbye” – crowned Chelsea Europa League champions with a two-goal sign-off.
The result was an indictment of Arsenal, whose first season under Unai Emery unraveled in a desperate 90 minutes in Baku, perhaps best illustrated by the late introduction of youngster Joe Willock. He replaced a lackluster Mesut Ozil, whose apparent lack of effort invoked the scorn of Arsenal fans again.
The 4-1 capitulation meant Arsenal will miss out on Champions League football next season, leaving the Basque coach under pressure. This was always going to be a transitional season for Arsenal after the departure of Arsene Wenger, but Emery and his players have offered too little to suggest the club has moved on from the Wenger era. Throughout the season there was little identity to latch on to at Arsenal and on Wednesday Arsenal were outclassed yet again as the gap within the British elite clubs looked to deepen.
“I want our fans to know: this is a process, and we’re just at the start,” said a despondent Emery, a triple winner of the Europa League with Sevilla. “We got closer this year, here and in the Premier League, and while we’re disappointed we have taken a small step [forward].”
“We have big players, some young players – the experience of this year will help. Next year we need them to continue, and also to add some new players, to help us take the next step. There’s room for improvement.”
His Chelsea counterpart Sarri will feel vindicated after a volatile season at Stamford Bridge where his position has been under constant scrutiny. Chelsea last won the Europa League in 2013 when they beat Benfica 2-1 and this fifth European Cup will have given the Italian, who has struggled to implement his own system on his squad, credit at the club. Ultimately an extension of his London sojourn depends on the plans of club owner Roman Abramovich, who was in Baku to attend the final.
“I need to talk to the club and make sure I know what I can do for Chelsea and what Chelsea can do for me,” said Maurizio Sarri. “I love the Premier League and I’m lucky I’m at Chelsea but at the end of each season you have to sit down and talk. In my opinion I deserve to stay at Chelsea but my opinion is not enough.”
Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1574455543labto1574455543ofdlr1574455543owedi1574455543sni@o1574455543fni1574455543