In Maurizio Sarri’s first press conference after taking his first steps into Stamford Bridge back in July of 2018, proclaimed that “we must start by having fun.” And although it may have taken several detours, a few dark days and very public fan frustration – Maurizio Sarri’s last 45 minutes of his maiden season in charge of Chelsea was just that, fun.
Unlike any other final, the political tensions and logistical complications that surrounded the showpiece made it seem anything but a major European final. There was an almost pre-season friendly feel to the occasion, the massive racing track surrounding the pitch and a lack of fans from either of the team’s home nations, made for a strange and dampened atmosphere.
However, any of that negativity was soon swept away as the Blues demolished their bitter London rivals in the last 45 minutes of the season, as Sarri’s players rose to new levels and claimed the club’s 16th major honour since Roman Abramovich’s arrival in the summer of 2003.
After an evenly contested and tense opening period, the Blues seized the moment and took control of a game that could’ve swung either way.
Maurizio Sarri has been criticised for his half-time team talks during the season, which has seen his side on multiple occasions scupper a promising first half with a languid and sometimes horrendous second one (See Bournemouth and Everton). However in Baku, the Blues grew on the strides they had made in the first period, by going for the throats of the Gunner’s in a ferocious manner.
It was written in the starts that Olivier Giroud, a man shut out and lambasted previously by Arsenal fans would be the one to hit the striking blow to his former side’s season. From then, the Blues didn’t let up, leaving red shirts chasing shadows as an attacking surge left the North Londoners reeling.
2-0, then 3-0, then after a stunning consolation goal from Iwobi, 4-1!
This was a night of pure vindication for Sarri, his tactics, his management and his methods which have been in question from a large section of his fanbase and sections of the press for many months. Though as I have written before, his resilience and willingness to stand behind his methods and believe in his principles in the toughest of moments is something that must garner respect from all corners. Sarri’s harshest, and most abusive critics have had one of their key sticks to beat him with demolished. He is capable of winning silverware, and the manner in which his side did it is something we’ve never seen from a Chelsea side in a European final before.
Say what you want about the fragility, weak mindedness and lack of quality from Chelsea’s once undefeated rivals, this was the pulsating, exciting and effective football Sarri has been working towards for the last nine months. Add to that the irony of it taking till the last half of the club’s season to take shape is truly poetic.
Sarri benefited off of the fitness of N’Golo Kante who played the full ninety, never looking once like a player with even a hint of an injury who had been regarded as “definitely out” hours before kick-off.
Smoke and mirrors, a bit of the old mind games from Sarri?
An orchestrated fight between Gonzalo Higuain and David Luiz in front of cameras to lure Arsenal fans and hungry media eyes into a conclusion of a false crisis?
Excuse the barmy conspiracy theories and now in truth to the manager, players and fans, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is the collection of another piece of silverware for the trophy cabinet which might require another trip to Ikea to grab some more space. Anyone order the Kullen?
There wasn’t a bad performer in Blue, but some of the notable standouts where Andreas Christensen, who after a challenging season has managed to find the game time and taken his chance with two hands. His physicality has been called into question, but up against two of the Premier League’s top finishers, he kept them easily at bay and was in the right place at the right time at all the key moments.
Emerson’s perfectly floated ball into the box allowed Giroud to net the crucial opener, which ironically was the same combination that helped the French striker to net his first goal for the club against Hull in February of 2018. The former Roma man has now made himself a must starter, with dynamic runs and energy which his competition wasn’t providing.
The midfield three were simply exceptional. Jorghino’s scapegoating days must be put to rest for awhile now as he once again proved himself to be an essential part of this system and one that only improves our attacking play and movement, responding to the harsh criticism he faced and has come back stronger, proving doubters wrong. In a similar vein, the once stated “pointlessness” of Mateo Kovačić from the mouth of one Graeme Souness must look a little silly now.
I’ll hold my hands up and praise the Croatian midfielder for proving me wrong last night. His tenacity, work rate and neat intricate play was everything that has been missing from his game after such a strong start to his loan spell. In a final, he stood up and if he’s capable of that, he can be a great asset to the first team squad, fighting for minutes.
Pedro’s experience told once more as a lovely finish helped put the game beyond the Gunners. Even with the transfer ban, Pedro should be kept as backup for the likes of Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi moving forward. A serial winner who scores big goals.
And to the man of the match, the man of the final and the man who has stollen the hearts, minds and dreams of his adoring supporters – Eden Hazard.
Belgium’s most gifted footballer of all time was never going to let his final act for Chelsea end on a whimper. After a mostly quite first half, the star-man became untouchable in the second, netting two and assisting one – leaving the pitch to a standing ovation from the small support who were able to get out to Azerbaijan.
As like most of the Echo writer’s, when his departure is officially confirmed I will write a full tribute to his time at the club, but to put it simply – Eden Hazard will go down as one of the icons of Chelsea Football Club.
A truly magical end to a truly magical talent.
The transfer ban and whether Chelsea will appeal the ban still remain to be seen, and the full answer to that question will massively dictate the upcoming summer and the way the first squad looks come the opening day of the 2019/20 campaign. If the ban stays, Chelsea will need to act swiftly and shrewdly to utilise the loan players properly as well as retaining the current squad.
It will leave Chelsea up against their fellow top six rivals who will all likely strengthen again and Sarri will need to have his team selections on point in the opening months, rather than the stagnation of the team which occurred during the winter months, not allowing for as much predictability and less of a meritocracy regarding player form.
However, the negativity and pessimism can be left for another day, this is a time for happiness and celebration. Following this mad club is truly a never ending chaotic rollercoaster ride that sends us from glorious ecstasy one minute to complete bafflement and frustration the next.
Whether you believe in the phrases of Sarriball or Sarrismo, one thing we can all believe in as Chelsea fans is silverware and that’s what Sarri has delivered.