Feature photo: Getty Images
Maurizio Sarri came, saw, and won. The former Napoli coach led Chelsea to their first Europa League title, seeing off Arsenal in the Final in Baku with a storming second half. Eden Hazard scored a brace in what was likely his last match with the Blues, and additional goals by Jean Giroud and Pedro Rodriguez wrapped a comfortable 4-1 success against Unai Emery’s side.
Sarri thus became the first Italian coach to win the second European competition since Alberto Malesani’s triumph with Parma in the UEFA Cup 1999. He is also the third manager from the Belpaese to get Chelsea a European accolade, following Gianluca Vialli’s success in the Cup Winners Cup 1998, and Roberto Di Matteo’s unimaginable winning campaign in 2012, which resulted in the Blues conquering the Champions League throne.
Europa League specialist Unai Emery, on the other hand, had to suffer the first defeat in the Final of a competition he had won three times in a row as a Sevilla manager, despite starting with the right foot and dominating the first 30 minutes of the match played at the Baku Olympic Stadium.
Last night’s game also marked the final appearance on the field for Arsenal’s goalkeeper Petr Cech, one of the best in his role in the 2000s decade. Cech was bombarded by his former Chelsea teammates, and ended his career bitterly despite keeping the Gunners afloat for a few minutes when the Blues suddenly woke up. But Chelsea will soon make up for spoiling the farewell to football of the Czech keeper, who is expected to rejoin as sporting director the club where he played for 11 seasons.
Sarri lined up Chelsea with his trademark 4-3-3 module, maimed by the absences of injured Antonio Rudiger and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Striker Gonzalo Higuain, who in a pre-match practice session had gotten involved in an argument with David Luiz that had driven Sarri nuts, was left on the bench. The Comandante’s choices for his offensive trident were Pedro Rodriguez, Olivier Giroud, and Eden Hazard.
Emery surprisingly opted for a three-man defensive line, and placed Mesut Ozil behind strikers Pierre Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. The French ended up being the most dangerous of the three, producing most of Arsenal’s offensive chances, whereas the former Mannschaft midfielder and the Gabonese’s contribution was minimal. However, the Spaniard coach was happy about his side’s approach to the match, and distributed confident thump ups to his boys in the early stages, as they pushed Chelsea within their defensive quarter.
Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi disallowed a penalty on a light contact between Alexandre Lacazette and goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga – a right decision, as the French collapsed down without being touched by the Blues’ goalie.
With the whole Chelsea defense struggling to figure out Lacazette’s moves, Cesar Azpilicueta and Kepa Arrizabalaga clashed into each other to anticipate him, posing a somewhat tongue-twisting challenge to TV commentators who had to spell their names together. A blaster by Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka in the 27th minute ended only a few inches above Kepa’s crossbar, certifying Arsenal’s domination in the first third of the match.
Chelsea’s reaction took the form of a beautiful pass by Eden Hazard for Emerson Palmieri, which resulted in a tricky shot by the Italian national, and called Cech to his first save of the match. The Czech goalie had to do even better in the 38th minute, when a one-touch combination between Jorginho and Olivier Giroud tested, and certified his reflexes as being still good despite his 37 years.
The two teams went for a break on a 0-0 score, but hints that the game’s momentum had changed found confirmation just three minutes into the second half, as Emerson offered Giroud a cross which the World Champion converted with a twisting diving header to put Sarri’s side ahead.
Ten minutes later, it was Pedro’s turn to make the best out of a pass by Eden Hazard, placing the ball out of Cech’s reach with a volley. Arsenal went into confusion, as right back Ainsley Maitland-Niles lost his focus and pushed Giroud down into the Gunners’ area. Rocchi pointed at the penalty spot with no hesitation this time, and Hazard scored for the 3-0 – his first realization in this Europa League edition.
Emery had a well-chosen intuition, and sent in Nigerian midfielder Alex Iwobi for former Sampdoria’s Lucas Torreira. The 23-year-old repaid him with an immediate right-foot screamer from out of the box which gave his side some dim hope. But Arsenal’s chances were quickly reduced to zero again, as Hazard wrapped up his personal double just three minutes later.
The Belgian star turned from assistman into scorer, this time finalizing a beautiful combination with Giroud, after stealing the ball from an apathetic Aubameyang in midfield. Maurizio Sarri offered him a well-deserved standing ovation, as he pulled him out in the 87th minute – and not before he had had at least one more chance to score another one…
Hazard, whose transfer to Real Madrid seems only to be officially confirmed, clearly hinted at his upcoming departure from Chelsea in his post-match remarks: “I think it is a goodbye, but in football you never know. 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 the time for a new challenge.”
The 28-year-old from La Louvière may indeed not be the only one to leave Stamford Bridge on a winning note. With last night’s triumph, coach Sarri and his Sarrismo – a pretty un-Italian football doctrine based on an offensive and entertaining style of play – has surely gained a few more followers in England, but also made his fellow countrymen more eager to bring his back to the Belpaese.
In the aftermath of the game, the Comandante ambiguously remarked that “in a couple of days, everything will be clearer [about my future].” After highlighting his affection for his old Napoli supporters – to whom he dedicated the Europa League title – he added that “last year, I chose to go abroad to avoid coaching another Italian team right away,” as an act of respect towards the Partenopei.
Exactly. Last year. The world of football is a quickly-changing environment, and with both Juventus and Milan on the lookout for a new coach, Maurizio Sarri’s status as Chelsea manager may be seriously challenged in the upcoming transfer market window.
May 29, 2019 – UEFA Europa League 2018-19 Final
SCORERS: 49′ Giroud (C), 60′ Pedro (C), 65′ Hazard (C, pen.), 69′ Iwobi (A), 73′ Hazard (C)
|CHELSEA (4-3-3): Kepa; Azpilicueta, Christensen, David Luiz, Emerson; Kanté, Jorginho, Kovacic (75′ Barkley); Pedro (71′ Willian), Giroud, Hazard (89′ Zappacosta) (Caballero, Cumming, Alonso, Higuain, Cahill, Ampadu, Gallagher, McEachran) Coach: Sarri|
|ARSENAL (3-4-1-2): Cech; Papastathopoulos, Koscielny, Monreal (66′ Guendouzi); Maitland-Niles, Torreira (67′ Iwobi), Xhaka, Kolasinac; Özil (77′ Willock); Lacazette, Aubameyang (Leno, Iliev, Elneny, Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Welbeck, Jenkinson, Nketiah, Saka) Coach: Emery|
REFEREE: Rocchi (Italy)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Pedro, Christensen (C)