Europa League

Europa League Review 2018-19: Baku final debacle overshadows Chelsea victory

 
10:20am on Thursday 15th August 2019
By
Martin Macdonald

This was the Europa League final which was meant to close the gap in prestige between the competition and the Champions League, but Uefa ultimately shot themselves in the foot with the decision to hold the final match in Baku, Azerbaijan. Myriad issues followed the choosing of the venue; Azerbaijan’s human rights violations, the allocation of tickets to both Chelsea and Arsenal fans - just 12,000 in a 70,000 capacity stadium - and the 6,000-mile round-trip from London put most fans off. However, the biggest controversy surrounded Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who chose not to attend the final after his safety could not be guaranteed by organisers. His country, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, have been involved in a conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Maurizio Sarri’s men ultimately won the final by demolishing the Gunners.

CHANGES

The usual sprinkle of big clubs were evident in the group stage of the Europa League, as the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, AC Milan, Sevilla, and Leverkusen all featured, while we were treated to debutants in the form of Luxembourgian side Dudelange, and Akhisarspor of Turkey. Sarri, in his new job since leaving Napoli, spent big in the summer, and brought in Jorginho from the Partenopei as well as the most expensive keeper in the world, Kepa Arrizabalaga, from Athletic Bilbao. Arsenal also had a new coach in the form of serial Europa League winner Unai Emery, who took over after Arsene Wenger’s lengthy tenure. Due to the ongoing political unrest between Ukraine and Russia, teams from those countries would not be allowed to be drawn against each other.

SUMMARY

For the most part, the group stage was fairly routine for the big hitters, with Arsenal and Chelsea both qualifying with 16 points out of the 18 available, while there was relatively simple progressions for Sevilla and Leverkusen. There were shocks, too; not only were the 2018 finalists, Marseille, eliminated but did so with just one point recorded. They were in a group alongside arguably the most entertaining team throughout the majority of the competition in Eintracht Frankfurt. The Bundesliga side were a breath of fresh and with star striker Luka Jovic earning a move to Real Madrid on the back of his superb displays.

Frankfurt, along with RB Salzburg, were the only two teams to claim maximum points in the group stage. AC Milan’s era of mediocrity continued as they were knocked out of a poor group which included Real Betis, Olympiakos, and Dudelange. Celtic and Rangers featured in the competition together for the first time in years and while Celtic progressed Rangers failed to exit the group.

In the knockout stage, the competition welcomed the big-hitters who failed in Champions League qualification, which included Napoli, Inter, Valencia, and Benfica, but Frankfurt provided the entertainment again as they ousted Shakhtar 6-3 over two legs.

It would be the German side who would feature in the most glamorous tie of the last-16 as they took on the might of Inter, with a solitary Jovic goal enough to secure a 1-0 aggregate win.

In one of the ties of the whole tournament, Slavia Prague eliminated Europa League stalwarts Sevilla 6-5 in extra-time. Franco Vazquez looked to have provided the killer blow but the hosts rallied and turned things around after goals from Mick van Buren and Ibrahim Benjamin Traore, who scored with one minute remaining, to send their team to the quarter-finals of the tournament for the first time in their history.

{quote[I am very happy, but the front of the shirt is very important - the trophy is very important for the club.

I am very happy, but the front of the shirt is very important - the trophy is very important for the club. The back of the shirt, the names of the players and the coach, is less important. MAURIZIO SARRI

Elsewhere, there were wins for Arsenal, Valencia, Napoli, and Chelsea, who embarrassed a young Dynamo Kyiv side with an 8-0 aggregate defeat.

The tastiest tie of the last eight saw Arsenal take on Napoli, but it proved to be a damp squib for Carlo Ancelotti’s men, who were soundly defeated 3-0 on aggregate. Valencia destroyed compatriots Villarreal while Chelsea and Frankfurt eliminated Slavia Prague and Benfica respectively.

In the semi-final, Arsenal were one again impressive, as they put seven past Valencia, with Aubameyang and Lacazette scoring every goal.

Frankfurt saw their dream run to the final denied as they battled hard at Stamford Bridge to take Chelsea to extra-time and penalties. Eden Hazard scored the decisive spotkick to set-up the first all-English European final in 11 years.

The final itself, was a farce. There were numerous seats empty, while the fans who did make the trip from London could barely be heard. The whole occasion had the air of a pre-season friendly rather than a showpiece event..

The game itself burst into life in the second half as the competition’s top scorer, Olivier Giroud, bulleted home a header to make it 1-0, while Pedro swiped in a neat strike soon after. The final subsequently belonged to Hazard, who bid farewell to the Chelsea fans after the match. He coolly dispatched another penalty then latched on to a delightful Giroud chip to volley into the empty net.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON

At 32-years-old, the Frenchman scored 11 goals in the tournament, including one in the final, where he got revenge on his former employers.

MANAGER OF THE SEASON

ADI HUTTER

In the Austrian’s first season in charge of Frankfurt, he took them to the semi-final of the Europa League with their thrilling score-more-than-you style.

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON

LUKA JOVIC

Only Giroud scored more goals than the young Serbian, who generated interest from just about every elite club in the world after his performances in the competition.

TOP GOALSCORER

OLIVIER GIROUD - 11 GOALS

TEAM OF THE SEASON

KEPA; DA COSTA, NGADEU-NGADJUI, CHRISTENSEN, MAITLAND-NILES; LOFTUS-CHEEK, WILLIAN, LO CELSO; AUBAMEYANG, GIROUD, JOVIC.

GOAL OF THE SEASON

AUBAMEYANG latches on to a bouncing ball through the middle and catches an unconventional volley with the outside of his right foot dipping into the bottom corner. The way he twists his body to make the connection makes for a truly unique finish.

KEY MOMENT OF THE SEASON

Eden Hazard scoring his last goal for Chelsea after playing a starring role in the final.

Latest news

Heat Check

Heat Check: Leicester are great, but not that great

Brendan Rodgers' side are making waves but their form is set to level off

  • 13 hours
Player of the Day

FC Player of the Day, 15 Nov: Gerard Moreno (Spain)

The Spanish forward produced an exceptional display in their rout of Malta

  • 15 hours
Reviews

FC Review: Maradona documentary is an essential piece of football cinema

Asif Kapadia's invasive account of Diego's life at Napoli is integral to understanding the man and the myth

  • 1 day
Expected Assists

Why Ryan Fraser and Lionel Messi have more in common than you think

In the second extract from James Tippett's book, we look at Expected Assists and find some surprising results

  • 1 day
Player Focus

Robert Lewandowski's superhuman form is unsustainable - so just enjoy it

He may be 31 now but the numbers show that the Pole is getting better with age

  • 1 day
Euro 2020

FC Player of the Day, 14 Nov: Chilwell the assist king

The Leicester full-back was in superb form for England against Montenegro, setting up three goals.

  • 1 day