BLUES FIND THE RIGHT BLEND

Chelsea’s mixture of vast experience and youthful exuberance has proved a potent combination on the route to the final

BY SIMON HART

What would be the defining image of Chelsea’s journey to Baku? Some might suggest a shot of veteran centre-forward Olivier Giroud scoring one of his competition-best tally of ten goals, others the beaming face of teenager Callum Hudson-Odoi as he slid on his knees to celebrate his first goal for the club against PAOK in November. But how about a picture from the other end of the pitch, one of David Luiz reacting smartly to divert Sébastien Haller’s goal-bound shot off the line in extra time of the semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt?

On such moments can a team’s destiny hang and it seemed to capture something of the essence of this Chelsea team, one who know the terrain so well in cup competitions. Luiz, after all, was there in Amsterdam when Chelsea won this competition in 2013 with victory over Benfica, and so too his fellow defender César Azpilicueta. Indeed, as a measure of this Chelsea squad’s experience, the XI who began the semi-final second leg against Eintracht had 441 international caps between them – and 549 appearances in UEFA club competitions.

Olivier Giroud (left) has led the way for Chelsea with ten goals. Keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga (below)

The consequence is that the team Italian coach Maurizio Sarri took charge of last summer have found a way to get through to this final without a single defeat – a run of 14 matches unscathed (which becomes a record 17 when incorporating the tail end of their triumphant 2012/13 campaign). 

For Sarri and his players there have been bumps on the road in their domestic competitions during what has felt like a period of transition – with the 6-0 Premier League defeat at Manchester City in February the obvious nadir. Yet a slow-burning European season could now end with an outburst of joy in Baku and the tenth trophy of what has been the club’s most successful decade.

Sarri’s Chelsea do not deviate from his preferred 4-3-3 structure and a key player in this set-up is Jorginho, the midfield pivot who followed his coach from Napoli and, as he has adjusted, has had a growing influence with his bravery on the ball, game understanding and ability to connect the lines with his passing. 

Amid Sarri’s varied midfield options – N’Golo Kanté (whose fitness is in question for this final), Mateo Kovačić, Ross Barkley – another player to have left a notable mark has been academy product Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who showed his growing confidence with a first senior hat-trick in the 3-1 group stage success over BATE on matchday three. 

It was one of five straight victories as Chelsea qualified as Group L winners – including a 4-0 home defeat of PAOK in which Hudson-Odoi, another homegrown player, showcased his rich promise with his first Chelsea goal and an assist for Álvaro Morata. “It was a really big moment for him and also for us as his team-mates because we know how much potential Callum has,” said Pedro Rodríguez of the 18-year-old. Such was the impact of the club’s young player of the year that, prior to succumbing to an Achilles injury, he had struck four goals in the competition, making him the Blues’ joint-second leading scorer in Europe with Pedro and Loftus-Cheek.

Indeed, Hudson-Odoi struck in both legs of the thumping 8-0 aggregate defeat of Dynamo Kyiv in the last 16 – a tie featuring a Giroud hat-trick in the Ukrainian capital – but Chelsea’s margins of victory have since become increasingly narrow. Come the last four, it took a penalty shoot-out to get the better of Eintracht, with the second leg offering a reminder of the importance of the previously peripheral Eden Hazard. 

Prior to that match, the 28-year-old had contributed neither a goal nor an assist in the competition – Willian, with seven, is the Londoners’ chief source of the latter – but cometh the hour, cometh Chelsea’s little magician, who teed up Loftus-Cheek’s goal, then converted the winning penalty after Kepa Arrizabalaga’s two shoot-out saves. A question mark may hang over Hazard’s future at the club, yet in Baku, Sarri will hope the Belgian, Chelsea’s player of the year, can be just as decisive again. “If it’s my last game, I will try to do everything,” said the player himself. “If it’s not, I will do the same.”

ROAD TO BAKU

Group L

Chelsea

BATE Borisov

Vidi

PAOK

W

5

3

2

1

D

1

0

1

0

L

0

3

3

5

F

12

9

5

5

A

3

9

7

12

Pts

16

9

7

3

P

6

6

6

6

PAOK

Chelsea

Chelsea

BATE

Chelsea

Vidi

0-1

1-0

3-1

0-1

4-0

2-2

Chelsea

Vidi

BATE

Chelsea

PAOK

Chelsea

ROUND OF 32

Malmö

Chelsea

1-2

3-0

Chelsea

Malmö

Chelsea win 5-1 on aggregate

ROUND OF 16

Chelsea

Dynamo Kyiv

3-0

0-5

Dynamo Kyiv

Chelsea

Chelsea win 8-0 on aggregate

QUARTER-FINALS

Slavia Praha

Chelsea

0-1

4-3

Chelsea

Slavia Praha

Chelsea win 5-3 on aggregate

SEMI-FINALS

Eintracht Frankfurt

Chelsea

1-1

1-1

Chelsea

Eintracht Frankfurt

Agg 2-2 aet; Chelsea win 4-3 on penalties

Logo_4x.png

GET YOUR COPY NOW!

 

Get your physical copy of the official 2019 UEFA Europa League Final Programme now

POWERED BY

UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE OFFICIAL SPONSORS
Contents.png