At the end, even Maurizio Sarri’s superstitions went out of the window. The Italian normally refuses to step on to the playing surface, though he could not contain himself at the final whistle. Sprinting forward on to the turf, arms raised in triumph, Chelsea’s head coach celebrated the first major trophy of a career that has spanned two decades. It was hard to begrudge him his moment.
It has been a difficult first season in England, marked by discontent in the stands and periods where the football has been rather too humdrum and uninspiring, for all that it has now yielded reward. His stint in the Premier League could yet prove shortlived should Juventus succeed in luring him back to Italy, with their interest persistent at present. Yet, as Arsenal were ripped to shreds through a blistering 23-minute spell here in distant Baku to wreck their own hopes of qualifying for next year’s Champions League, Chelsea revelled in the attacking menace of a Sarri side.
It felt almost revelatory, watching Jorginho spin and release teammates into space as those in blue flooded forward, cutting through at will with Eden Hazard a man possessed and even N’Golo Kanté scuttling about with the knee brace on his right leg forgotten.
Up in the Gods of this stadium, with its banks of empty seats and locals enthusiastically waving their flags, Roman Abramovich must have revelled in a glimpse of the vision he had earmarked when turning to Sarri last summer. This was how it was supposed to be: a thrill of ruthless, attacking football; a humiliating dismantling of flustered opponents; the kind of stylish display that might make an owner reconsider whether losing the head coach this summer is such a good idea after all.
That said, if Sarri’s stay is extended, Chelsea will not often confront opponents who defend as chaotically as Arsenal. There was little to no resistance in that frantic passage after the break, when the centre-halves lost their bearings, composure drained away and panic gripped. Unai Emery knew how important it was to return to Europe’s elite club competition. His summer transfer budget, that convenient means of revamping an obliging backline, had depended upon it. Now, for all his insistence that the size of the club means big players could still come, those aspirations are in tatters.
The final had drifted into its last quarter when Hazard exchanged passes with Giroud before darting free of broken opponents on to the striker’s lofted return. His finish was tucked in beyond Cech, who is likely to be Chelsea’s incoming director of football. There was no answer to such brilliance. English football will miss his effervescence, even if defenders up and down the elite will breathe a sigh of relief.
When those early forays forward did not yield reward, Arsenal rather recoiled. Perhaps they might have prospered had they opened the scoring. Maybe the confidence of a lead would have bolstered that porous backline. Instead, at the first hint of adversity, they shrank. Giroud, guiding in Emerson’s cross with his header skipping inside Cech’s near-post, forced Chelsea ahead and the lack of character in Arsenal ranks was exposed in the dreadful period that ensued. A team bereft of leaders wilted, with Alex Iwobi’s crunched volley a brief moment of relief amid the pain. More telling was the sight of Mesut Özil being hauled off and replaced by Joe Willock. The German’s scowl spoke volumes.
Pedro would add the second on the hour-mark, Jorginho having liberated Hazard down the left with the Belgian opening up his body to square for the Spaniard just inside the area. He has now scored in Champions League and Europa League finals.