In an emphatic performance in Baku, Chelsea thrashed Arsenal 4-1 in the Europa League final.
After a really slow first half where there was nothing on display bar a couple of moments from Eden Hazard, the Belgian lit up the second half of the game with some sumptuous football. But he was ably assisted in this endeavour by Olivier Giroud.
“When Olly scored, I think it was the beginning of a great night,” said Hazard after the match. The Frenchman is the one who broke open the deadlock with a stunning header from Emerson’s left-wing cross, but it was his Belgian team-mate that stole the show.
“Maybe it’s time for a new challenge,” said Hazard after the game, giving voice to the open secret that he was on the verge of joining Real Madrid. There can be no doubt he will depart, “I think it’s a goodbye,” he said, and what a goodbye it was! Two goals and one assist, taking a 1-0 lead and absolutely pulverising Arsenal to put the result beyond doubt.
Hazard is often a capricious player, as likely to sleepwalk through a game as light it up with moments of supreme skill. And part of that is his mentality, for sure, but a lot of it is down to tactics. Hazard is the kind of heads-up dribbler that invites associative play, he needs a striker who can be similarly associative if he is to be at his best. When he cuts infield and penetrates, he needs a striker who can simply take a pass then flick or roll it back into his path.
Chelsea have tried to find him the ideal partner, and whilst they’ve had various levels of luck with the likes of Diego Costa, Samuel Eto’o and Alvaro Morata (and Gonzalo Higuain), ultimately they’ve found it hard to get Hazard and the striker playing brilliantly together. One usually had to sublimate themselves for the other to shine.
Olivier Giroud, on the other hand, has no such issues. He is such a gloriously associative striker that he can shine at the same time as Hazard. The two of them play so well together. They are in almost perfect harmony, understanding each other’s movements. When Hazard pushes in, Giroud knows that a simple flick around the corner to get the pass back is what he wants.
When Hazard is driving from deep, Giroud knows to drift wide enough to offer an option and pull defenders away. These are obvious things but you’d be amazed at how many strikers don’t understand the rhythm of Eden Hazard’s game and just end up getting in his way. Not Giroud though, and tonight in Baku the two led a beatdown onto the beleagued Gunners.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel here.
The first goal tonight saw Eden Hazard help switch the play where it ended up out wide for Emerson to cross it to Giroud. The second goal saw Hazard dribble out wide and with Giroud penning the defence back, the Belgian played a cutback into Pedro’s path for the Spaniard to score. Then just five minutes later, Giroud cannily won a penalty which Hazard casually dispatched.
Finally, for the fourth goal, they linked up directly. Hazard went on one of his delicious penetrating runs through the middle of the park, and Giroud peeled out onto the left. The Belgian slipped the ball out to the Frenchman and raced into the box. With zero hesitation, Giroud lofted a delicate cross over the Arsenal defence for Hazard to slap home his second and seal the win in style.
“He’s a targetman, maybe the best in the world. I think so,” Hazard said of Giroud back at the start of the season. “When he gets the ball, he can hold it and we can go with him.” So if they play so well together, why has Giroud spent so much time on the bench this season?
Sure, the Frenchman started every game in the Europa League this season, finishing as top scorer with 11 goals, but in the Premier League he managed just 823 minutes – less than he managed in the Europa League! And given Hazard started just four games in Europe this season, totalling only 362 minutes, it seems as though the pair had been deliberately kept apart.
That is criminal, really. Chelsea are a club with a lot of talent in their squad but they have no one close to Eden Hazard, and so logically you would want to find a player who can compliment him, right? Olivier Giroud was that player! As the final victory over Arsenal showed, these two are devastating together. An almost unstoppable pairing.
And now, with Hazard leaving, we will never get to see the full potential of their partnership. Chelsea will struggle mightily to replace Hazard, not just in terms of the sheer quality of the man (top 5 in the world) but in finding the kind of player who can develop an instant understanding and chemistry with Giroud – who the Blues have confirmed will be at the club next season.
Luckily for Hazard he’s heading to a club in Real Madrid who currently have a no. 9 that is just as unselfish and associative as Giroud in Karim Benzema. And unlike Chelsea, the Bernabeu brass value Benzema enormously and will likely be salivating at the prospect of pairing him with Eden Hazard to create the kind of dynamic duo that Chelsea seemed so reluctant to give a chance too.