Hazard sends Chelsea to Europa League final ahead of probable exit
LONDON -- Eden Hazard was shot, knackered, spent. The Europa League is not his stage, not really; everybody knows that and it is one reason why, as Chelsea plugged along through their previous 15 outings in the competition, he had only been wheeled out for 228 minutes in total. Here he had dragged himself through an entire two hours of Thursday's semifinal second leg, those whirring legs slowing up to eventually resemble paddles sludging their way through mud. The juice had run out; the ideas had really too. Eintracht Frankfurt had brought this tie to a knife edge and, with it, had put Hazard's grand finale on the line.
Stamford Bridge is Hazard's stage. It has been for seven years now, no matter what the competition. Hazard's fire has raged during that time, ever so occasionally dying down to merely a flicker. He has slalomed his way to titles; bewitched his way to individual awards; carried dying teams on his shoulders; jinked into the club's pantheon of greats to such an extent that the drawn-out, opaque departure process he has undergone this season has drawn barely a murmur of disapproval from the stands.
But Hazard had never faced a situation like this. He had watched Cesar Azpilicueta miss in the shootout and give Eintracht one foot on the final. He had then seen Kepa Arrizabalaga, wise to Martin Hinteregger's attempt to drill the ball down the middle, stand firm and wedge it between his legs. He knew his time was coming when Goncalo Paciencia, his stuttering run-up postage stamped with inevitability, let Kepa save again. Now, he had his chance: one last shot for one last final; one last shot in front of the crowd that he adores and who have, with no need for encouragement, reciprocated that in bundles; one last moment of high drama to bookend the lightning bolts of sheer magic.
Hazard did not miss. Nobody seriously thought he would; that he would score was probably the nearest thing to a certainty on a wild, snarling night that swung this way and that. He sent Kevin Trapp the wrong way, perhaps grateful for the 10 minutes he had been given to clear his mind since the end of extra time. It was a crisp, lucid finish; they usually are, and as most of his teammates flocked to mob Kepa, Hazard ran slightly behind, eyes trained on the Shed End's mass of part-relieved, part-delirious limbs.
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"I always take my responsibility," Hazard said afterward. His responsibility was to score, whether or not this was his last kick of a ball at Stamford Bridge; but if he is indeed to leave Chelsea this summer, there is something else at play too. He has helped them to hold their nerve domestically -- to a sounder degree than their rivals, in any case -- and quality for next season's Champions League. If he can send himself off with a second Europa League title, beating Arsenal in Baku and adding to the trophy won in 2012-13, then perhaps he can leave in the knowledge that a fractured club is finally beginning to heal.
Because, make no mistake, Chelsea's home is a complex, troubled place.
Five minutes before the end of normal time, Maurizio Sarri replaced Ruben Loftus-Cheek -- the scorer of their first-half opener but a diminishing influence as Eintracht clawed their way back into the tie -- with the fresher legs of Ross Barkley. Ordinarily, it should not have been a controversial move, but the disdain for Sarri, palpable since the winter, needed little excuse to rear its head even on what was, whether they liked it or not, Chelsea's biggest game of the season. The boos rang out from all four sides; it was far removed from the expectant, supportive environment that might be expected when things were going to the wire against excellent opponents, but nothing about this season in west London has fitted preconceived notions.
Everything feels on thin ice here. Sarri has steered them to a respectable finish and might well top that with a European trophy, but his philosophy, his preference for method over indignant, us-against-the-world belligerence, simply does not seem to fit. When Eintracht's brilliant young striker Luka Jovic equalised after half-time, the tension was that of a crowd waiting to turn.
"Over the 120 minutes, we were the better team and had the better chances," the Eintracht coach Adi Hutter claimed. He was probably right: The substitute Sebastien Haller saw two extra-time efforts cleared off the line; and from beginning to end, it was only the visiting supporters -- surely the loudest, most inventive bunch heard at any top-level match in England this year -- who seemed energised to offer unconditional support.
They and their vibrant team, which faces a breakup comparable to that of Champions League heroes Ajax, deserved more. But Chelsea themselves might lose a huge part of their modern identity come August. The chances of seeing anyone capable of such sustained brilliance as Hazard -- whose name was greeted with bellows of approval before kickoff as a flag bearing his image was passed along the Matthew Harding Stand -- gracing this turf in the foreseeable future are remote.
At least they could wring out every last drop here. It was Hazard who set up Loftus-Cheek's goal before, by his exacting standards, failing to match perspiration with end product. That was before he settled the issue, threw his shirt to the crowd and disappeared down the tunnel for what was surely the final time.
"In my mind, I don't know yet," he said, inscrutable as ever, when asked about his future. "If it is my last game [against Arsenal], I will try to do everything."
One last flourish could yet fix Chelsea and Sarri. But after delivering so poetically here, you wonder what more he could possibly do.