Eden Hazard, who admitted afterwards it is time for goodbye, crowned his seven-year career with Chelsea by scoring twice in a 4-1 demolition of Arsenal in the Europa League Final in Baku in what was an emotional but glorious farewell.
Hazard, heavily linked with a €125m move to Real Madrid, scored a penalty and a well-taken half-volley as Arsenal’s dreams were brutally crushed in a convincing second-half display by Mauricio Sarri’s side, rubbed home by the fact that Gunners legend Olivier Giroud scored one and set up two against his former side on a night that Unai Emery will want to forget.
Pedro was also on target while Alex Iwobi provided some consolation for Arsenal with a stunning volley; but there’s no doubt that the night belonged to a Belgian winger who has kept this Chelsea side alive all season and is now ready for a new challenge.
The goals were his 109th and 110th in a blue shirt in 352 appearances and, should he head to the Bernabeu this summer, he will leave with a haul of two Premier League titles, one FA Cup, one League Cup and two Europa Leagues – plus a place in the Chelsea Hall of Fame.
There is nothing like going out on a high, and Hazard was given a standing ovation by his own fans when substituted at the end on a heady night for the west London side.
Afterwards the winger admitted he is on his way, saying: “My target today was to win the trophy, nothing else. But I took my decision already, I said that two weeks ago. Now it depends on both clubs. I’m just waiting like the fans wait so soon you will know soon.
I think it’s a goodbye but in football you never know. Right now I’m just happy to lift this trophy with the boys.
With that question answered the next one most Chelsea fans will want answering now is whether manager Sarri’s job is safe after not only guiding his team into the top four in the Premier League but also winning in Europe. The Italian has been linked with a move to Juventus after a season full of rumours in which he has not always been a crowd favourite; but Chelsea, who were the top scorers in this Europa League, showed signs of their development in Baku as they produced a confident and ruthless performance.
One player who is definitely on the way out is Arsenal’s Petr Cech who made a string of fine saves as Chelsea threatened to run riot after a poor first half, but still ended up on the losing side. The one consolation for the former Stamford Bridge goalkeeper is that after retiring this summer he will head back to west London in a directorial role – so there is another chapter of his career yet to be written.
As you can see, this was a match which had so many
different dimensions to it. The first all-Premier-League European final since Tottenham faced Wolves in the UEFA Cup Final of 1972 and the first ever all-London affair. A final goodbye for Cech and Hazard at Chelsea, a controversial venue 2500 miles from home and no Henrik Mkhitaryan, who felt unable to travel because of tension between host country Azerbaijan and his home nation of Armenia. Add in two managers under pressure for different reasons, and the fixture presented more angles than a professional snooker tournament.
The question was, as a result of all those considerations, who would feel the pressure more?
Would it be Chelsea, whose manager Sarri’s future seemed to depend on the result, or would it be Arsenal, who desperately needed victory to secure a place in next year’s Champions League having failed to achieve it through their league position?
But despite the importance of the occasion and how much was at stake, the first half felt rather flat in a half-empty stadium with neither team quite finding their feet.
Arsenal were the stronger and felt they should have had a penalty early on when Alexandre Lacazette got to the ball first before Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa, and appeared to be brought down; but their protestations were waved away and replays suggest referee Gianluca Rocchi just about got it right.
Granit Xhakas’s long-range effort then clipped the bar but Arsenal had veteran goalkeeper Cech to thank for taking into the break on level terms.
He made his first save from Emerson after 34 minutes, following good work by Hazard, but his second was even more impressive - a sprawling stop from a scuffed Giroud shot following a swift counter-attack by Chelsea which could so easily have seen them go into the break ahead.
All of that counted for nothing, however, when Arsenal switched off momentarily in the 50th minute and paid the price as their former striker Giroud nipped in front of his marker to deftly head past Cech from an Emerson cross.
The full-back was given far too much time by Emery’s side but it was still a beautifully-constructed header, expertly executed - and all that from a man who scored 103 goals in an Arsenal shirt and was once a hero at the Emirates.
Having been so timid in the first half Chelsea were ruthless in the second because they were 2-0 ahead by the 60th minute, Hazard finding Pedro with a beautifully-weighted pass and the unmarked Spaniard stroked home a first-time left-footed finish which gave Cech no chance.
Suddenly Arsenal, as we’ve seen so many times before, were unravelling and self-destructing in front of our eyes; and they capped it with a needless penalty after 65 minutes when Ainsley Maitland-Niles got the wrong side of Giroud and nudged him in the back, sending the Frenchman falling to the floor.
Hazard, despite all the pressure of potentially his final Chelsea performance, was nerveless as he sent Cech the wrong way. No real surprise, that, as the veteran has faced 18 penalties now for Arsenal, saved only one and dived the wrong way on 14 occasions.
It looked like Arsenal were dead and buried but a stunning, curling volley from substitute Alex Iwobi soon after gave them brief hope, firing home from the edge of the area with Kepa unable to even move.
After that, however, Chelsea ran riot. Giroud set up Hazard to deftly fire home left-footed on the half-volley and there could have been more if Cech had not made three or four saves to keep the score down.
It’s a familiar feeling for Arsenal, who have now lost five of their six European finals while Chelsea have lifted a trophy in five out of six; and that just about sums up both clubs in the modern era.
Subs for Chelsea: Barkley for Kovacic 76), Willian for Pedro 71), Zappacosta for Hazard 89
Guendouzi for Monreal 66, Iwobi for Torreira 66), Willock for Ozil 78.
Gianluca Rocchi (Italy).