Rumours of English football’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. It may have taken a nervy penalty shoot-out at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea edged past Eintracht Frankfurt tonight after a 1-1 draw to ensure an all-London Europa League final against Arsenal in Baku on 29 May.
Never before have both major European finals been populated by the same nation, but after Liverpool and Tottenham’s Champions League heroics there will be yet more intrigue in Europe’s secondary competition.
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech is to retire at the end of the season, but not before he has faced the club with which he won four Premier League titles, four FA Cups, one Champions League and one Europa League title in one momentous last outing.
Cech has Chelsea’s new No1 to thank after Kepa Arrizabalaga pulled off two impressive stops to deny Martin Hinteregger and Goncalo Paciencia and allow Eden Hazard the winning moment.
Jekyll and Hyde
It was ultimately less dramatic in Spain, but Arsenal did not make light work of Valencia.
Strikers are supposed to score goals and as such Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are just performing their roles in the Arsenal team.
But the contrast between the Gunners’ offence and defence is absolutely stark, with the two reminiscent of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – combining flashes of good with an alter ego of shambolic defending instead of evil.
Arsenal won 4-2 to overcome Valencia 7-3 on aggregate and keep their season alive by reaching the Europa League final simply because their outstanding strikers managed to bail out their shaky defence.
After Lacazette had led proceedings at in the first leg it was Aubameyang who stepped it up a notch tonight, registering a superb hat-trick to send Arsenal to Baku.
The Gabon international is razor-sharp in front of goal, with a dipping volley, sliding finish and rising shot from an acute angle taking his tally to 28 for the season.
His pace, work-rate, understanding with his strike partner and unerring finishing are a cut above the Europa League. Put bluntly: Arsenal are fortunate to have somebody of his ability.
Just as in the first leg, Arsenal did not make it easy for themselves. Deploying Mesut Ozil at the tip of a diamond behind two strikers, with the attack-minded Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolasinac as wing-backs, is not a method which chimes with keeping it tight.
Incredibly for a side with a two-goal lead, Unai Emery’s side were caught on the counter-attack within 11 minutes, Kevin Gameiro turning in Goncalo Guedes’ cross, while the defensive midfield pairing of Granit Xhaka and Lucas Torreira resembled sugar paper rather than a brick wall.
The much-maligned Shkodran Mustafi may have been on the substitutes’ bench but the issues appear to run deeper and be systemic – it’s not just the personnel.
Stay of execution
Maurizio Sarri had already lost one penalty shoot-out, missing out on the Carabao Cup to Manchester City, and he was fortunate to be given a stay of execution.
The Blues were dominant in the first half, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s placed finish giving them a deserved lead, but they drifted in the second and Luka Jovic’s smartly taken equaliser after a mistake by David Luiz had them rattled.
After receiving boos for taking off Loftus-Cheek, Luiz and Davide Zappacosta cleared off the line in injury-time to keep them in it before Kepa came to the fore.