BAKU – Eden Hazard scored twice in what could be his farewell appearance as Chelsea swept away Arsenal in the Europa League final in Baku, winning 4-1 to hand Maurizio Sarri his first major trophy as a coach.
This match started at 11pm local time on Wednesday in Azerbaijan, but it was Thursday by the time it came to life with a flood of second-half goals, started by Olivier Giroud’s 49th-minute opener against his old club.
Hazard then set up Pedro Rodriguez for Chelsea’s second before grabbing a brace of his own – including a penalty – either side of Alex Iwobi’s reply for Arsenal.
The Belgian has been tipped to leave Chelsea for Real Madrid after seven years in England, and if this is to be Hazard’s swansong, it was the perfect way to go.
It is his, and Chelsea’s, second Europa League this decade, and comes after they finished third in the Premier League to secure their return to the Champions League next season.
There will be no return to Europe’s top table for Arsenal. Unai Emery’s side had to win here to qualify for the Champions League, but they were just not good enough on a bizarre night in Azerbaijan’s capital.
Emery was hoping to win this competition for the fourth time. He will get another chance next season, but for now, Arsenal’s 25-year wait to bring back a European trophy to north London goes on.
Chelsea will remember their evening with fondness, as will Sarri, who 24 hours earlier had stolen the headlines when he angrily stormed off the pitch here during a training session in front of the television cameras.
The few Chelsea supporters who came will not forget their night either, but the fact there were reportedly only around 1 300 in Azerbaijan will be a source of regret to those at Stamford Bridge.
Uefa’s decision to play the game here had been heavily criticised, with the difficulty and cost of coming to the shores of the Caspian Sea preventing many fans from travelling, and meaning Arsenal’s Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan was controversially absent.
Azerbaijan’s strongman president Ilham Aliyev was in the crowd, but there were thousands of empty seats in the Baku Olympic Stadium, a ground which holds almost 70 000.
That meant that, far away from the blood and thunder of a typical derby fixture between these two London clubs, this had the feel of an end-of-season exhibition match on a foreign tour, for much of the first half at least.
The players seemed to be short of their usual rhythm in a match played two-and-a-half weeks after the Premier League season ended.
It came to life though, with an early moment of controversy when Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi dismissed Arsenal appeals for a penalty as Alexandre Lacazette went down under a challenge from Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Granit Xhaka then saw his powerful strike from 25 yards graze the crossbar on its way over as the half-hour mark approached.
Only after that did Chelsea come to life, but Petr Cech – facing his old side in his final match before retiring – blocked an Emerson Palmieri shot, and then denied Giroud at the end of a fine move.
However, as the clock ticked past midnight after a goalless first half, Chelsea went ahead when Giroud stole in front of Laurent Koscielny, and stooped to head Emerson’s ball in from the left past Cech.
It was his 11th goal in this season’s competition, and there was to be no comeback from Arsenal, with Chelsea quickly putting this final beyond their opponents’ reach as Hazard took over.
He set up Pedro for a clipped finish low beyond Cech and into the far corner on the hour mark, and five minutes later Hazard calmly rolled in a penalty awarded after Ainsley Maitland-Niles had barged into Giroud.
Substitute Iwobi’s sublime reply soon followed, but Arsenal had left themselves with too much to do, and Giroud and Hazard then combined brilliantly for the Belgian to get his second and Chelsea’s fourth in the 72nd minute.