Chelsea set up all-English Europa League final against Arsenal with penalty shootout win over Eintracht Frankfurt
Chelsea 1 Eintracht Frankfurt 1 - AET Chelsea win 4-3 on pens
Chelsea endured the toxicity of Stamford Bridge to prevail on penalties against Eintracht Frankfurt and set up a Europa League final against Arsenal.
Eden Hazard dispelled an evening of negativity with the winning spot kick in perhaps his final home game, but Kepa Arrizabalaga also shone, exercising his demons from Wembley: first with his kneecap to deny Martin Hinteregger and then rejecting Goncalo Paciencia, who was specifically sent on to aid the Germans' hopes after extra-time.
Chelsea were given an inconvenient reminder early on about the draining night that awaited them; Frankfurt roared out the gates, buoyed by their boisterous fans. With Adolf Hutter’s side using the width through their full-backs, the ball was quickly switched to Danny da Costa on the right edge of the area. His sweetly-struck volley forced Kepa into a smart, one-handed save.
Both sides possessed jewels who continue to attract whispers concerning their futures. Eden Hazard, starting at Stamford Bridge for possibly the final time, saw the Matthew Harding stand proudly unveiled a banner of him, both acknowledging his seven-year contribution as well as desperately attempting to convince him to stay.
Frankfurt’s talisman, Luka Jovic, also looks to be playing out his final days with the club and the Serbian revelled in his role to lead the visitors’ counter-attacks once again. This time with partner in crime Ante Rebic, suspended for the first leg, tucked in beside him.
Their instinct to play to Jovic’s power in transition kindly offered the Blues a foothold in the game though, with David Luiz’s flicked header cleared off the line by Makoto Hasebe. And the Blues were ahead before the half-hour mark when Ruben Loftus-Cheek, buoyed by his increased minutes in recent weeks, capped a delightful move with Hazard down the left. After cruising into the box to collect the Belgian’s ball, he shot low into the corner for his 10th of the season.
Despite emerging early for the second half to keep warm, the Blues were caught cold after the restart. Confusion in their area spread like wildfire and Jovic gleefully capitalised. His chested pass into MIjat Gacinovic was gladly returned and the predatory Serbian spun quickly behind a drowsy David Luiz and finished calmly to level the tie.
A restless fanbase were soon snapping at their own players, continuing a trend under Maurizio Sarri this season. Filip Kostic and Rebic ambitiously took aim from distance as Frankfurt sensed blood.
A now toxic Stamford Bridge then showered Sarri with abuse when he opted to replace the injured Andreas Christensen with full-back Davide Zappacosta, though there was logic, as Cesar Azpilicueta shifted inside. But Chelsea were beginning to lose their heads: Azpilicueta saw yellow for a wild lunge on Gacinovic. And when Sarri further riled the fans more by removing Loftus-Cheek, the home fans appeared to have all but given up.
Jovic, with minutes remaining, discarded his selfless approach and jinked his way into the box before being crowded out.
Having so often been labelled as weak and fragile, this Chelsea finally endured adversity, having drifted to this point in the tournament with a 15-games unbeaten run. It felt like an achievement just to arrive at extra-time with Jovic failing to connect properly after wriggling free at a corner before full-time came.
Sebastian Haller almost put the visitors ahead after the restart, knocking the ball into the turf with his studs to send the ball spinning beyond a helpless Kepa, but Luiz was on the line to acrobatically clear. And Haller was denied once again inches from the goalline, this time Zappacosta hacking clear.
Kostic threatened on the break, Zappacosta stung Trapp's fingertips and Azpilicueta illegally bundled the ball into the net as the drama reached a feverish level.
And after Liverpool and Tottenham displayed inconceivable mental fortitude in the days before, it was appropriate that penalties settled this one. After all the negativity this season, Hazard perhaps on the way out sparked wild scenes of relief. This turbulent season may yet end in glory.
Independent News Service