Eden Hazard inspires Chelsea to win Europa League as they thrash sorry Arsenal
Only at Chelsea could a season of such relentless turmoil, under a manager who is so loathed by so many of their supporters, culminate with a European title and a wonderful collective performance that suggests the future might well be bright after all.
This truly was the embodiment of the Roman Abramovich era at Chelsea, a club who swing from chaos to celebration with all the ease of Eden Hazard drifting past a desperate full-back.
For those who are keeping count, the Europa League of 2019 is title No 16 since the Russian money flowed into Stamford Bridge in 2003. A title per year for 16 years, and the emphatic nature of the victory will ensure it remains firmly entrenched in the Chelsea memory along with the best of the others.
So, too, will Hazard, whose two goals and assist ensured that the Baku final will forever be known as his final. As a farewell, it could hardly have been more spectacular.
“I think it’s a goodbye,” he said within minutes of the final whistle. “Maybe it’s time for a new challenge.”
Will it also be goodbye to Maurizio Sarri? A first title in management, coupled with a third-place finish in the Premier League, will reinforce the Italian’s belief that his season has been a success.
Perhaps those Chelsea fans who turned against him might now find themselves wheeling round and hoping that he resists the allure of Juventus.
Sarri’s joy at the final whistle contrasted with the anguish that swept across the face of Unai Emery, standing motionless on the touchline as Chelsea’s players sunk to their knees in celebration.
Arsenal knew that a win, and a subsequent return to the Champions League, would provide clarity over their long-term future. With defeat comes clouds of doubt and concern that the gap between Emery’s side and Europe’s premier competition may only grow bigger.
The ease with which they were undone by Olivier Giroud for the opening goal will grate on Emery’s mind all summer.
Arsenal’s subsequent disintegration, conceding three more times in 12 brutal second-half minutes, brought to mind all the accusations of flimsiness that Emery has so frantically tried to scrub away.
The unwelcome truth for Arsenal had set in long before Chelsea had lifted the trophy. They have failed to achieve their primary objective this season, falling short at the definitive end of the Premier League season and the final step of this Europa League campaign.
Arsenal had known well the importance of this, arguably their most significant match in a decade, but they crumpled at the precise moment at which they needed to stand tall.
It spoke volumes for the difference between the two teams that, as Hazard sauntered around upfield, Arsenal’s own No 10 faded further in the background.
Mesut Ozil’s substitution for young Joe Willock, a 19-year-old who has played one senior match since February, told its own tale of the German’s night.
Long before, Arsenal had started well. They had their chances. But once Giroud had struck against his former club they were never in the game. Even a wonderful long-range effort from Alex Iwobi – after Pedro struck and Hazard converted a penalty – failed to inspire much hope of a comeback, with Hazard adding a fourth for Chelsea.
Hazard was without question the star man, doing more than anyone else to illuminate a stadium that struggled horribly for atmosphere. There are few players on the planet who can lead an attack with the venom and creativity that Hazard displayed in a stunning second half.
“We will decide in a few days and the only target in my mind tonight was to win this final,” he said. “I have made my decision already and now I’m waiting on both clubs.
“My dream was to play in the Premier League and I have done that for one of the biggest clubs, so maybe now it is time for a new challenge.
“I want a new challenge. Now it is up to the two clubs. We will see in the next couple of days. This is the perfect end. I want to say to the fans that I love them, they are part of my family and I will always support Chelsea. If it is a goodbye, thank you for these seven years.”
The joy of Hazard’s football eventually detracted from the eerie atmosphere in Baku, where the London derby of Azerbaijan felt more like a ghost final than a European final.
There were thousands of seats unoccupied, left exposed to the sweaty air by the ridiculousness of Uefa’s decision to host this match here, on the other end of Europe and out of reach for all but around 7,000 Londoners.
It all made for an awkward first half, in which Alexandre Lacazette was denied a penalty for Arsenal and Petr Cech – in his last match as a player – made a couple of smart saves against his old club.
The breakthrough came a few minutes after the break, Giroud stooping to reach Emerson Palmieri’s cross. The header, firm and low, was devastating.
Before Arsenal could adapt, it was two. Hazard was central to the goal, to the surprise of neither the travelling nor local fans, and Pedro’s finish from the Belgian’s pass was accurate, if not clean.
By this point, Emery’s side had lost all their confidence and most of their composure. Ainsley Maitland-Niles had started brilliantly, but lost his way along with his team-mates. His shove on Giroud in the penalty area was needless.
Hazard, inevitably, rolled home the penalty.
Arsenal found solace in Iwobi, off the bench to lash home from range. His effort, on the bounce, flew like one of the pre-match fireworks through a pile of bodies and into Chelsea’s top corner. The little pocket of red shirts celebrated in their section, but they knew the game was up.
Hazard would not allow Arsenal much time to dream of a comeback, combining again with Giroud and finishing his second, and surely final, goal in Chelsea blue.
May 29, 2019 – Telegraph
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