KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Three goals in the opening 20 minutes of the second half from Olivier Giroud, Pedro and the departing Eden Hazard (penalty) fired Chelsea to a 4-1 triumph over imploding Arsenal in the all-London final of the UEFA Europa League in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku.
Alex Iwobi struck an Arsenal consolation but then Hazard scored a second goal from the penalty spot on his last performance for Chelsea before his expected transfer to Real Madrid. Hazard appeared to confirm the speculation immediately after the final whistle by telling a television interviewer: “I’m just waiting for the clubs – I think it’s goodbye.”
If this was Hazard’s swansong he could hardly have left on a more impressive note. The manner in which he and Chelsea raised their game at the start of the second half devastated Arsenal who thus failed to achieve a back-door return to the Champions League next season. Chelsea had played with no such worry on their shoulders: third place in the Premier League had already assured them of a return among the elite.
Ironically only one English player, Arsenal’s midfielder Ainsley Maitland-Niles, started a showdown played under a cloud of controversy over the distance of the half-empty venue and the political dispute with Armenia which prevented the Gunners bringing midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Chelsea had been the more distracted ahead of the final with questionmarks over the futures of not only Hazard but also manager Maurizio Sarri who duly ended the night with the first major trophy of his career after earlier disappointment in the League Cup Final against Manchester City.
The Blues were brought under greater pressure in the early stages of the first half.
First Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang bounced a shot wide after a sloppy punch clear from Kepa then the Chelsea keeper was fortunate not to concede a penalty after diving at the feet of the onrushing Alexandre Lacazette.
Arsenal, whose manager Unai Enery had won the title three times with Sevilla, went close again after 27 minutes when Granit Xhaka thumped a right-foot drive from 25 metres which clipped the top of the crossbar. Kepa, at £70m the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, struggled in vain to stretch a finger to the ball.
For all Arsenal’s goal attempts, Chelsea always carried a threat on the counter-attack. In the 39th minute Oliver Giroud saw a low angled drive pushed to safety by Petr Cech, the 37-year-old making his last appearance ahead of retirement.
The value of the save was enhanced in the 49th minute when France World Cup-winner Giroud dive-headed Chelsea into the lead from Emerson’s angled assist with his top-scoring 11th goal of the European campaign.
Ten minutes later Spanish forward Pedro struck Chelsea’s second after neat inter-passing between Kovacic and Hazard and then the Belgian struck the third from a 64th-minute penalty after Giroud was felled by Maitland-Niles.
Arsenal manager Emery responded by sending on Matteo Guendouzi and Alex Iwobi for Nacho Monreal and Lucas Torreira and was immediately rewarded with a well-struck goal from Iwobi after Chelsea failed to clear Xhaka’s left-wing free kick.
Any hope in north London evaporated almost immediately as Hazard scored Chelsea’s fourth on the counter-attack in converting a return pass from Giroud.
Hazard thus became the first player to score twice for an English club in a European final since Mark Hughes in Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Barcelona in the 1991 Cup-winners Cup Final.
Now it was only a question of the winning margin. Substitute Willian drew a fine save from Cech and Cesar Azpilicueta drove narrowly wide. At the other end Arsenal replacement Joe Willock, on for Mesut Ozil, shot wastefully over the top.
Arsenal, thus far, had put only two goal attempts on target in the entire match and Chelsea manager Sarri could afford to offer Hazard an early exit in the 88th minute.
The final whistle marked a happy end to the season. For the moment, at least, the negative issues – such as a threatened FIFA transfer ban – could be set aside in the delight of the moment.