BAKU, AZERBAIJAN — Olivier Giroud left Arsenal because he couldn’t get a game. They wanted a different kind of striker, apparently. The kind that wins World Cups, flings himself across defenders to score diving headers in Europa League finals was no longer the ticket. Arsene knows, eh?
Giroud has found a home at Chelsea alright, at least in this competition, and was in the right place to crack the game wide open early in the second half. It was his 11th Europa League goal of the season, edging Eintracht Frankfurt’s coveted Luka Jovic no less out of the picture. He had a hand in two more as Chelsea ultimately made a pressed shirt of Arsenal, ironing them to the Baku floor.
You wonder what Unai Emery was thinking casting his gaze over the pretty little things who drove Giroud to Stamford Bridge, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Quick and dexterous though they are, neither have Giroud’s scale or clout in the box. Only four minutes of the second half had passed when the Frenchman flung himself at Emerson’s cross.
Before that this was one for the purists. Unfortunately, there were too few of them here. A showpiece between two London teams four miles apart played out across two days 2,500 miles from home struggled to escape from Uefa’s enforced displacement. An 11pm kick-off to suit the broadcast needs in parts of Europe where football is actually relevant hardly helped either.
Ten minutes after Giroud’s intervention Pedro slotted Chelsea two to the good. Five minutes after that Ainsley Maitland-Miles flattened you know who in the box to gift Eden Hazard his first from the spot. Arsenal were gone, unable even to make anything of the speed transfusion supplied by Alex Iwobi, who cracked in a beauty from 25 yards minutes after coming off the bench. Hope lasted all of three minutes, the time it took Giroud to lift the ball into the path of Hazard to smoke Chelsea’s fourth.
So after weeks of protest and lament it came down to the one community largely unaffected by Uefa’s political machinations, the players. Of course Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s absence was unfortunate, but insufficient to overly inconvenience or disrupt. They board the plane, they disembark the plane. The bit in between is all downloads and sleep. Baku might have been Berlin or Barcelona to them.
It would have been better had the stadium been full instead of pockmarked by absence. But this was never about fans and the support of their teams. This was entirely a broadcast venture, a means of Uefa communicating their idea of expansion and inclusion and of Azerbaijan, a nation desperate to alter negative perceptions, projecting through sport. Any holes in the atmosphere would never be felt in the sitting rooms of global viewers. And for those in the stadium, public address systems can turn up the volume to suit any occasion.
Besides, there was probably a degree of relief just to get the match started. The rapidly growing phenomenon of presenting football as an event has transformed the preamble into some sort of Eurovision confection, which on this occasion amounted to a percussive assault led by a DJ and an alleged vocalist, supported by troops of dancing school children. Who at Uefa thinks this stuff necessary, relevant or entertaining?
Disappointing end for Cech
There was an early cheer for Petr Cech, who, as suspected, was given the honour in goal ahead of Bernd Leno on his final appearance as a player before returning to Chelsea as technical director. Cech was called forth by a speculative punt by David Luiz, whose ball seeking Pedro was optimistic at best. Sadly it was one of the better moments of the opening half.
The first chance of consequence fell to Arsenal in the ninth minute, Aubameyang making a hash of a decent opportunity after Kepa Arrizabalaga had palmed into his path a cross from Maitland-Niles, the only Enlgishman in this all-English final. Apart from a denied penalty claim when Lacazette tumbled under a challenge from Kepa the contest refused to free itself from the strange soporific quality that shrouded it.
Chelsea could not get going at all. In ordinary circumstances fans will pick up the slack, urging their team forward, or calling them out, but with fewer than 6,000 English supporters making the trip those plugging the gaps lacked a sense of how and when to boo or cheer.
At last, with 33 minutes on the clock Hazard announced himself with a marvelous flick to take out the Arsenal defence and set Emerson free on goal. The save he brought from Cech might persuade him to keep the suit on a hanger for one more year. There was too much athleticism and know-how in the block to hide behind a desk. As if to drive the point home Cech was at it again six minutes later diving full length to his left to deny…yes, him again, that man Giroud.