Soulless showpiece highlights UEFA's Baku error as Hazard signs off in style

Oleh Jamie Smith 30 Mei 2019 20
Soulless showpiece highlights UEFA's Baku error as Hazard signs off in style

Perhaps it was inevitable a game between two teams from the same league played in the middle of nowhere often felt more like a pre-season warm-up than a major European final, hardly providing the fitting farewell Eden Hazard's Chelsea career deserved.

Arguments over travel and ticketing arrangements dominated the build-up to Wednesday's Europa League final between Arsenal and the Blues, with only a few thousand fans of either side able to attend and witness Hazard signing off in style.

UEFA selecting Baku as the host city for the final always seemed a curious call - money and Azerbaijan's increasing use of soft power plays the most obvious logical reasons - but once Arsenal qualified it was thrown even more sharply into focus by the Henrikh Mkhitaryan issue.

That the Arsenal playmaker, who featured 11 times in the competition this season, felt unable to travel to Azeri capital over safety concerns will surely be remembered as a blight on the European game. Had it been Lionel Messi or another superstar like Hazard put in Mkhitaryan's position, it is tempting to wonder whether the final would have gone ahead.

UEFA insisted both Arsenal and Mkhitaryan had been guaranteed the player's safety, but it was completely understandable the Armenia international opted not to take any risks. And Arsenal will rightly think they would have been more competitive with Mkhitaryan available, although the gifted midfielder would hardly have stemmed the Hazard-inspired flow of constant Chelsea attacks down the Gunners' right in a chastening 4-1 loss.

Had Baku been equipped to hold a game of this magnitude - Arsenal needed to win to gain qualification for the Champions League, which Chelsea had already secured via a top-four finish in the Premier League - UEFA's decision may have been forgiven, or at least forgotten.

But the vast Olympic Stadium was a bad choice regardless of the complications of trying to get to Baku from London, with the cavernous stands situated a huge distance away from the pitch and featuring plenty of empty seats. Those hardy supporters who did make a near 3,000-mile trip would have welcomed binoculars.

Speaking of the pitch, it did not appear conducive to hosting a final, with regular bobbles resulting in bad control, misplaced passes and general low quality in a first half of non-action. Even a magician like Hazard initially struggled to cast his spell on the contest.

Chelsea adjusted to testing conditions slower than Arsenal, who had a strong penalty appeal rejected when Alexandre Lacazette went down under a challenge from Blues goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. Although VAR was in use, video replays were somewhat oddly not called into play.

By half-time Chelsea were on top and three goals in 20 minutes after the restart then set up the first major silverware of Maurizio Sarri's career, in what might well prove the Italian's final game in charge of the club. Juventus are reportedly keen to appoint him as Massimiliano Allegri's successor, Sarri having pushed the Bianconeri all the way with Napoli in Serie A last term.

Hazard is also virtually certain to depart, with Real Madrid set to complete a long-mooted move for the Belgium star, and he was able to mark what was surely his farewell appearance with two goals.

"I think it is a goodbye," Hazard told BT Sport after the game and Chelsea will miss him something rotten, especially if their appeal against a two-window transfer ban is not overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. 

In Petr Cech's last game before retirement, the veteran goalkeeper's brilliant low save to deny Olivier Giroud in the first half was left moot as his own exit ahead of a reported return to Stamford Bridge to take an off the field role turned into a comparative nightmare.

And for Arsenal there was only the prospect of a horribly long trip home from Baku, which should never have hosted this final or Hazard's farewell.

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Jamie Smith