Although the team picked itself really I could at least say I had nailed it again. I’m sure Unai reads the previews. Also as predicted Kante started for Chelsea. The mood ahead of the London derby in a ridiculous location was said to be good with Chelsea and Arsenal supporters mixing peacefully. Let’s hope it remains that way in the coming hours.
How would we cope with the Chelsea front three of Pedro, Hazard, and Olivier Giroud? Could Chelsea deal with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette? Luiz freed Pedro in the opening minute but Petr Cech came and played as sweeper keeper to snuff out the danger.
Our first chance arrived in the ninth minute when Kepa could only punch a cross from Ainsley Maitland-Niles to Aubameyang but the first shot of the contest drifted wide of the far post. Not surprisingly the opening phase was cagey and this was a welcome attack of note. Lacazette looked to free Aubameyang five minutes later, but just failed to do so.
Two minutes later Granit Xhaka picked out Sead Kolasinac on the left flank but Azpilicueta recovered to block the cross. VAR denied us a penalty when Kepa appeared to catch Lacazette as he was put through one on one. How costly would that non decision prove? We were taking control of the contest and Jorginho had to concede a corner to prevent another Maitland-Niles cross from reaching it’s intended destination.
We needed to turn the scoreboard over in this spell of pressure. Lacazette went chasing a Torreira through ball and Azpilicueta all but tore his shirt off to deny the Gunners striker in the box, although to be fair it probably started outside the area. Still no award was forthcoming. Pedro fouled Monreal and Sokratis reached the resulting free-kick at full stretch but his header looped into the grateful arms of Kepa.
Chelsea finally threatened on 25 minutes and mercifully Giroud miscontrolled a cross from Pedro as we were stretched on a rare break. Aubameyang responded with a cross that Lacazette could only deflect over the raiding Kolasinac. Then Granit Xhaka clipped the crossbar with a thunderous right footer from the edge of the area. We truly deserved something at this point but not scoring was looking ominous.
A corner and an Azpilicueta run around the half hour mark highlighted the ability of Chelsea to spring forward but defensively we pleasingly stood firm. We responded with a header wide by Sokratis Papastathopoulos from a corner. We held firm again when Cech got down quickly to his left to deny Emerson and Maitland-Niles dispossessed the dangerous Hazard in the box.
Back we came and Kepa looked far from confident punching a Kolasinac cross back into the danger area. It was becoming an end to end contest as half-time approached and Maitland-Niles again denied Hazard in the box. It was worrying that Chelsea had created that one on one situation. Six minutes from the break Cech denied Giroud with a magnificent save at full stretch to his left. We reached the half-time whistle both frustrated and relieved.
Mesut Ozil had appeared largely anonymous in the first-half, but look again. He was doing the man-marking job on Jorginho that Aaron Ramsey had done so well in the home Premier League fixture. He was unable to contribute as much creatively as a result and Unai Emery must have been thinking of switching to a flat back four at some point in order to get Alex Iwobi into the midfield as well.
That wasn’t a consideration at the start of the second-half which began with Aubameyang raiding down the right wing only to see Luiz half-block his attempted cross to Lacazette into the path of Kepa. At the other end Hazard teed up Giroud but mercifully the former Gunner miscued it and we survived. It was but a temporary reprieve. Giroud, who else, dived in front of Koscielny to send a diving header just inside the goalpost and we had paid the penalty for not scoring when dominant in the first-half.
That switch from Emery now appeared more desirable than ever to this old fool. We attempted to respond but Chelsea now had massed ranks of blue at the back. Pedro picked up the first yellow card of the night, seemingly for dissent, or was it for diving? That was a bit fussy of the Italian referee perhaps.
Torreira was denied by a Kante block as we sought a crucial equaliser. Chelsea broke again and as the hour approached they virtually sealed the deal when Hazard picked out the unmarked Pedro who passed the ball inside the far post. The back three was being exposed. When would Emery make the long overdue change?
Disaster followed. Maitland-Niles flattened Giroud in the box and Hazard’s penalty sealed the deal. It was his farewell gift to the bus stop in Fulham, but gifted to him by the inaction of Emery. This was not the end of season we had prayed for. Too late he sent on Iwobi, and astonishingly Matteo Guendouzi, for Monreal and Torreira. Where was Danny Welbeck?
Iwobi’s impact was immediate. Christensen was booked for fouling him, the resulting free-kick was diverted into his path, and an immaculate volley reduced the deficit, but too late. Giroud chipped a peach to Hazard at the far post and it was 4-1.
BBC summed up the next phase perfectly. “A shot at each end as this game just falls apart in terms of discipline and shape. Eden Hazard has a curler pushed away by Petr Cech and then Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fires over.” Cech then produced another magnificent save to deny Willian. He was unquestionably our man of the match. A telling verdict on a night of shame. Sokratis too had to summon his last ounce of energy to deny the same player.
Azpilicueta smashed one just past the far post as The Arsenal simply waved a white flag. It’s hard being objective at this point. Apologies, but this is embarrassing. As I typed that Christensen blocked Lacazette’s effort as 4-2 looked likely. Joe Willock, introduced for Ozil, should have scored the second but shanked a curler wide of the mark. No criticism of the lad intended. It was probably a good idea to give him a taste of the big game. With no Champions League football next season we will need to promote the pick of the youngsters next season. He is one.
The best team over the ninety minutes unquestionably won tonight. We paid the ultimate penalty for not taking advantage of our first-half dominance. Cruelly three minutes were added at the end when it would have been kinder to put us out of our misery. Well played Chelsea. I hope I never have to write those words again. Let’s all spare a thought for those hardy souls who actually reached Baku, a crap venue for a crap Final performance. Sorry.
The end of season surrender of a Champions League place reflects badly on the head coach. In truth given the position we were in having played all of the big six with a couple of months of the season to go it was criminal. He got a second chance tonight, and failed again with his inaction until the game was lost. He has to be given a second season. We’re not a Chelsea, but he has to demonstrate quickly next season that he has learned the lessons of his first end-of-season.