The celebrations were blue in Baku as Chelsea won the Europa League with a convincing victory in the final against Arsenal.
Olivier Giroud and Eden Hazard proved instrumental to our success, with the Belgian involved in three of our four second-half goals and Giroud breaking the deadlock early after the restart. Pedro was also on the scoresheet as we produced the perfect performance on the big stage to take the trophy the long way home to London.
It was a final that took a while to warm up at the Baku Olympic Stadium but the wait proved worthwhile as five goals after the break provided the entertainment for those Chelsea fans who had travelled almost 3,000 miles to watch their team in a European final in Azerbaijan.
Giroud’s brave header buried into the bottom corner set us on our way early after the restart, before two further goals in four minutes placed clear daylight between the capital rivals. Pedro finished expertly to make it 2-0 from a Hazard cross before our number 10 got himself on the scoresheet with a penalty won by Giroud.
While Alex Iwobi briefly reduced the deficit, the final word went to Hazard as he rounded off the scoring at the end of a brilliant move involving Giroud to secure silverware for Chelsea in 2018/19.
The big team news talking point in the build-up to the final surrounded the fitness of N’Golo Kante, who Maurizio Sarri had given a 50/50 chance of involvement just 24 hours previously, yet the Frenchman was deemed to have recovered sufficiently from an ankle knock to start in midfield for the Blues.
That meant a central trio of Kante, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, the latter making his 50th start for the club, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek ruled out through injury. In attack, we went with Pedro, Hazard and Giroud, the competition’s joint-leading scorer this term with 10 goals. The back five were unchanged from our semi-final second leg shoot-out victory over Eintracht Frankfurt.
Unai Emery’s selection dilemma centred on whether to hand former Blue Petr Cech a farewell start against the club he served so brilliantly for 11 trophy-filled years, in the final game before the goalkeeper’s retirement. The 37-year-old was duly handed that opportunity, lining up between the sticks as the Gunners stuck with the 3-4-1-2 system that has served them well in Europe since the turn of the year.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac were tasked with providing the width from wing-back, while Mesut Ozil continued behind Alexandre Lacazatte and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The strike duo accounted for Arsenal’s last eight Europa League goals prior to the final and would present the most testing challenge for Sarri’s defence.
With the temperature at kick-off still above 20C, thousands of empty seats and a subdued atmosphere, the game began at a predictably slow tempo on the banks of the Caspian Sea. It took almost 10 minutes for either penalty box to be threatened when Maitland-Niles advanced from the right wing and saw his driven cross pushed into Aubameyang’s path by Kepa. The Gabon striker had to take his strike first time and flashed the ball narrowly wide of the far upright.
Chelsea chances were limited early on, with one free-kick delivery over-hit by Hazard and another cross into the box comfortably plucked from the Azerbaijani sky by Cech. It was the Gunners who looked likeliest to break the deadlock and there was a moment in the stadium when it seemed that might come from the penalty spot after Lacazette crumpled to the ground when hurdling Kepa.
A moment’s confusion at the Italian referee’s signalling was swiftly resolved as the officials deemed contact between forward and keeper was not sufficient enough to warrant a foul.
Our best chance of the opening half hour fell to the former Arsenal striker Giroud following a counter-attack down the right led by Kante. The midfielder’s cross found his compatriot in the box but Giroud’s attempt to flick the ball backwards into the path of the supporting Pedro failed to come off.
The final slowly began to open up as a contest and engage as a spectacle. Granit Xhaka made perfect contact with a rising drive from 20 yards that clipped the top of the crossbar before Emerson caused problems going forward, initially with a low shot blocked by Sokratis and then forcing a smart stop from Cech.
Watching Cech in goal for a European final will have stirred many fond memories for those in blue. The veteran shot-stopper appeared intent on stepping up on the big stage and it was his intervention with a strong hand flung low to the left six minutes before the break that denied us the chance to go in with a half-time lead.
Hazard was central to an intricate move, picking out Jorginho with a precise forward pass before the Italian found Giroud in space on the edge of the box. Latching on to the ball laid perfectly into his path, the Frenchman fired low but could not find the bottom corner. The fact he had his head in his hands still moments later indicated just how a big an opportunity it had been.
Yet the man who recently signed a new contract in west London could not be kept at bay for much longer. Within five minutes of the second half restart and just gone midnight local time, a stooping header secured Giroud his 11th Europa League goal of the season and placed us in control of the final.
Emerson supplied from the left with a measured delivery and our number 18 went in bravely with his head where Laurent Koscielny led with his boot, connecting superbly to plant a perfect header into the bottom corner beyond Cech’s despairing dive.
Arsenal were shaken and failed to recover their composure until it was too late, dropping deep to invite further pressure and allowing too much space for Pedro and Hazard to operate in. Two goals in four minutes on the hour mark appeared to put the contest beyond Emery’s side as the Blues raced into a three-goal lead.
Pedro grabbed the second after Hazard’s positive play down the left channel, the Belgian teeing up his wing partner to score with an effort fired into the ground and beyond Cech for 2-0.
The Spanish forward was then involved again moments later as he advanced into the box and picked out Giroud, who was shoved from behind by Maitland-Niles in a desperate recovery attempt from the defender. It was a challenge that had to be awarded as a penalty, allowing Hazard to step up and roll in a typically confident spot-kick from 12 yards.
Emery made changes in response, introducing Mateo Guendouzi and Alex Iwobi, and it was the latter who provided some brief hope to his manager’s efforts of winning a fourth Europa League title with a stunning strike on the half-volley that flew past Kepa into the top far corner of the net.
Yet before those Arsenal supporters in the Olympic Stadium were able to dare to dream of an unlikely comeback, that man Hazard turned up to haunt them again. Our number 10 has quite the collection of eye-catching goals against the Gunners and this was right up there with them.
Emerson turned over possession just beyond halfway, Hazard drove forward and exchanged passes with Giroud before turning the ball in from a few yards out. As he wheeled away in celebration, Giroud also took the plaudits from his teammates for what was an exquisite scooped assist under pressure.
There was still plenty of action in the remaining 15 minutes, even if the scoreline was now heavily in our favour, and only Cech helped keep the deficit respectable. Hazard was denied a hat-trick by his former teammate, who then thwarted Willian and was relieved to see Azpilicueta’s fierce effort fly inches wide.
As the final whistle sounded, those in blue raced on to the field to celebrate the fifth major European title in our history. Baku joins Athens, Stockholm, Munich and Amsterdam in Chelsea folklore - hats off to Maurizio Sarri and his players!
Chelsea (4-3-3) Arrizabalaga; Azpilicueta (c), Christensen, David Luiz, Emerson; Jorginho, Kante, Kovacic (Barkley 76); Pedro (Willian 71), Giroud, Hazard (Zappacosta 89)
Unused subs Caballero, Cumming, Cahill, Ampadu, McEachran, Gallagher, Higuain
Scorers Giroud 49, Pedro 60, Hazard (pen) 65, 72
Booked Pedro 56, Christensen 68
Arsenal (3-4-1-2) Cech; Sokratis, Koscielny (c), Monreal (Guendouzi 66); Maitland-Niles, Torreira (Iwobi 66), Xhaka, Kolasinac; Ozil (Willock 77); Lacazette, Aubameyang
Unused subs Leno, Iliev, Elneny, Lichtsteiner, Mustafi, Welbeck, Jenkinson, Nketiah, Saka
Scorer Iwobi 69
Referee Gianluca Rocchi from Italy