For Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Arsenal in the Europa League final meant a first major trophy for the manager. Yet it came in what may be his final game at the club, with reports suggesting both that Juventus is keen to appoint him and that Chelsea is not overly bothered about keeping him.
On a strangely tepid evening in Baku, Azerbaijan, Arsenal fell apart after halftime. Both sides have shown frailty this season, but it was Arsenal that collapsed after its former striker, Olivier Giroud, had headed Chelsea in front four minutes after the restart. Pedro swept in an Eden Hazard cut-back on the hour mark, and then Hazard, in what was almost certainly his final game for the club, scored from the penalty spot. The Belgian also got the fourth, half-volleying in after a one-two with Giroud to eradicate the thoughts of an Arsenal comeback that had been sparked by Alex Iwobi’s superb volley.
Hazard is expected to leave for Real Madrid, but his manager’s future is less clear. Sarri has had a most puzzling first year in England. He warned everybody when he arrived that it would take time for his idiosyncratic methods to take effect, but, after very little support in terms of signings, patience wore thin as a promising start yielded to inconsistency. Chelsea’s football has been ponderous at times, but its pressing was far too good for Arsenal in the second half.
And so Sarri has ended the season with a trophy, a third-place finish in the league as well as an appearance in the League Cup final. The last Chelsea manager to win the Europa League, Rafa Benitez, also left the club immediately, his past at Liverpool making it impossible for him ever to establish a rapport with fans. Sarri, too, has been booed, placing the Chelsea hierarchy in a bind.
For the Chelsea board to appoint somebody like Sarri and give him only a season would be absurd, but with a transfer ban meaning there is no easy way of transforming the squad to his specifications and that relationship with fans fractious, there have been no guarantees he would be kept on. In that sense, the interest from Juve may work for everybody.
Yet Arsenal will wonder, with some justification, whether the game should have been played at all. Baku, simply, was not an appropriate venue. When the ticket allocations were first announced, both teams reacted with fury, at which UEFA sheepishly admitted that Baku's airport could only safely handle the arrival of an estimated 15,000 fans. As it turned out, the difficulty and expense of traveling more than 2,500 miles across Europe meant that neither sold out. Only an estimated 7,000 fans traveled from London. That in itself is scandalous. While UEFA's stated aim of spreading finals across all its members is laudable, host cities for finals have to be both accessible from across the continent and able to accommodate tens of thousands of visitors. As a result there were significant empty patches of turquoise seats in the stadium, while the atmosphere was distinctly low-key.
Even worse, though, was the fact that Henrikh Mkhitaryan felt unable to travel because of political tensions between Azerbaijan and his native Armenia. Expecting individual players to make decisions on which venues are safe is manifestly unworkable, but given UEFA keeps Azerbaijan and Armenia apart in draws, it has acknowledged there is a problem. The Azerbaijani government insisted he would be safe, but the visa problems suffered by fans with surnames that appeared Armenian, and the fact that fans wearing Arsenal shirts with Mkhitaryan’s name on the back were harassed on the streets by police, suggested Mkhitaryan’s unease was not without foundation.
Arsenal manager Unai Emery won this tournament three times in a row with Sevilla between 2014 and 2016, and for the opening half hour or so, it looked like he might add a fourth Europa League title–and more importantly, the Champions League place that would have come along with it for his side. Arsenal was the better of the two clubs early on, causing problems wide as the two wingbacks surged forward. But once Chelsea had settled, that threat dissipated, and the game became far more level until the first goal. After that, Arsenal collapsed again, a trait that long pre-dates Emery. Self-belief and defensive nous are both in short supply at the Emirates. Still, Arsenal picked up seven more points this season than last, and even with defeat, there are signs of progress under Emery.
But this was Chelsea’s night, with owner Roman Abramovich attending his first game of the season and watching his club win the 16th major trophy of his reign. But as has been the way for so much of those 16 years, who will be managing the club next season remains unclear.