Chelsea beat Eintracht Frankfurt in shootout to reach Europa League final | Football
It had to be Eden Hazard. This increasingly tense contest had been largely bereft of dashes of the Belgian’s brilliance, his twist and turn away from a frazzled David Abraham in the build-up to Chelsea’s goal aside, but there was a certain inevitability he would still end up deciding what may well prove to be his last appearance in blue in this arena. His scriptwriter should take a bow.
A slog of a tie had spluttered through two hours of rather undistinguished toil into a penalty shootout before Hazard’s moment eventually arrived. Kepa Arrizabalaga had watched his opposite number, Kevin Trapp, deny César Azpilicueta to tempt Eintracht Frankfurt into believing they were on the verge of a first European final in 39 years, only for the Spanish goalkeeper to block Martin Hinteregger’s scuffed attempt and save splendidly down to his left to paw away Gonçalo Paciência’s effort. Arrizabalaga’s rehabilitation after his tantrum at Wembley before this team’s last shootout feels complete.
That was the elaborate set-up. Hazard’s strut as he approached the penalty spot, spinning the ball from hand to hand before placing it with a glance at the referee and a puff of the cheeks, smacked of a man utterly convinced his destiny had been prescribed. He would not be denied. Trapp duly dived to his left, the playmaker stroking the ball into the opposite corner with potentially his last touch as a Chelsea player at Stamford Bridge. His first reaction was to console the crestfallen goalkeeper in the goalmouth.
It was the perfect cadence, albeit one missed by Maurizio Sarri who, paralysed by his various superstitions, had refused to watch the decisive spot kicks from the sidelines. “I was only thinking about winning something for this club, this squad,” said Hazard, maintaining his policy of deflecting any query over his future while that long elusive move to Real Madrid edges closer towards reality. “If it’s my last game, I will try to do everything. If it’s not, we’ll see. In my mind I don’t know yet, so I’m just thinking about winning games – that’s it.”
The denouement was also rather out of keeping with Hazard’s evening, spent largely on the periphery of a messy game which, in truth, had lacked so much of the drama of Liverpool’s unfeasible dismissal of Barcelona, or Tottenham’s mind-boggling late riposte in Amsterdam. There was too much huff and puff, and too little quality before the shootout injected some intrigue into proceedings.
In truth, it probably should not have come to that. Both teams might have established an unassailable advantage at some point of the evening, only to fritter away their opportunities when the tie appeared to be there for the taking. Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s well taken first-half goal was reward for his latest eye-catching display, the England midfielder’s rampaging bursts through the centre now a feature of this side’s approach.
Hazard had tormented Abraham in the buildup before sliding a pass inside Sebastian Rode for Loftus-Cheek to collect, stroll unchallenged in the Eintracht penalty area, open up his body and finish crisply across Trapp.
That was the 23-year-old’s 10th goal of a productive season, and his withdrawal – “with the usual cramps”, according to Sarri – before the end of normal time would prompt a chorus of booed disbelief from the majority in the ground. By then, the match was already drifting towards an additional period with Chelsea having relinquished all semblance of control from the moment Luka Jovic exchanged passes with Mijat Gacinovic early in the second half and hoodwinked Arrizabalaga with a sway of the hips before burying an equaliser into the net.
The Serb departs this competition as the joint leading scorer with 10 goals, a tally Olivier Giroud will still aspire to eclipse in Baku. Eintracht’s efforts were admirably courageous, not least given the stuffing appeared to have been knocked out of their domestic and European campaigns by Chelsea’s revival at the Commerzbank Arena last week and their 6-1 capitulation at Bayer Leverkusen at the weekend. Yet they should probably have pilfered a second goal in extra time with the substitute Sebastien Haller, ring-rusty after recent injury, twice denied by goalline clearances from David Luiz and Davide Zappacosta.
Yet, for all that Sarri became increasingly agitated as the game progressed to incur the wrath of the fourth official for encroaching out of his technical area, that was as close as the Germans came to replicating the comebacks summoned by English clubs in Europe this week. The Premier League has taken all four places in the two Uefa finals, with Chelsea retaining the chance to secure silverware from the Italian’s first campaign in this country. “I am happy, the boys are happy, the fans are happy,” added Hazard.
“But we have another game against Arsenal now to come. It’s not finished.” It is tempting to wonder whether he has another date with destiny still ahead.