Chelsea, Arsenal Zoom Into Europa League Final

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Chelsea players celebrating
Chelsea players celebrating

Arsenal and Chelsea have qualified for the Europa League final, completing an historic week with European football’s two major finals now featuring Premier League teams.

The London clubs will face one another in Baku on 29 May while Liverpool will take on Tottenham in the Champions League final in Madrid on 1 June.

Arsenal beat Valencia 4 to win their semi-final tie 3-7 while Chelsea sealed their place in the final by beating Eintracht Frankfurt  4-3 on penalties after the match finished 1-1 after extra time, with the aggregate score 2-2.

Kepa Arrizabalaga was Chelsea’s hero as the Spanish goalkeeper sent his side to the Europa League final with two penalty saves in a dramatic 4-3 shoot-out win against Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday.

Maurizio Sarri’s side took the lead in the semi-final second leg thanks to Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s first half strike at Stamford Bridge.

But Luka Jovic equalised soon after the interval as a tense clash finished 1-1 after extra time and 2-2 on aggregate.

Cesar Azpilicueta’s penalty was saved by Kevin Trapp in the shoot-out, but Kepa kept out Martin Hinteregger’s effort and then turned away Goncalo Paciencia before Eden Hazard slotted home the decisive kick to spark wild celebrations.

It was a sweet moment of redemption for Kepa after he was widely criticised for his astonishing mutiny in the League Cup final against Manchester City when he refused to be substituted before the Blues lost on penalties.

Hazard also relished his crucial contribution in what could be his last kick at the Bridge amid rumours of a close-season move to Real Madrid.

Chelsea will face London rivals Arsenal in an all-Premier League final in Baku on May 29.

It will be Chelsea’s sixth European final and their first since winning the 2013 Europa League.

Having already qualified for next season’s Champions League when they guaranteed a top-four finish in the Premier League last weekend, Chelsea can bring an uplifting end to Sarri’s troubled first season in charge by lifting the Europa League.

Former Napoli boss Sarri this week claimed Chelsea “deserve” to win a trophy this season and the Italian is now one victory away from the first major prize of his managerial career.

With Liverpool playing Tottenham in the Champions League final, it will be the first year that both European finals involve only English sides.

Right from the start, Chelsea were creaky at the back and Danny Da Costa was left unmarked to meet Jovic’s cross with a fierce volley that Kepa kept out with a superb tip over.

Europa League specialist Olivier Giroud, who had 10 goals in 12 appearances in the competition this season, nearly added to his haul when he met Emerson’s cross with a close-range effort that was blocked by Trapp.

Frankfurt flummoxed –

David Luiz went even closer with a glancing header from Willian’s free-kick, but the Chelsea defender was denied by Makoto Hasebe’s goalline clearance.

Inevitably, Hazard was the catalyst for Chelsea’s 28th minute opener as he twisted and turned to find just enough space for a perfectly-weighted pass to Loftus-Cheek.

Hazard’s vision and execution completely flummoxed the Frankfurt defence, leaving Loftus-Cheek with plenty of time to guide a cool low finish into the far corner for his 10th goal of the season.

But Chelsea couldn’t turn their first half superiority into further goals and a fatal loss of concentration allowed Frankfurt to equalise in the 49th minute.

Jovic had scored Frankfurt’s goal in the first leg and the 21-year-old Serb showed why he is being linked to Real Madrid with another predatory finish.

Chesting the ball down to Mijat Gacinovic, Jovic easily eluded the dozing Luiz as he ran onto the return pass and calmly steered in his 10th Europa League goal this season.

With Chelsea struggling to match Frankfurt’s intensity, Sarri replaced Loftus-Cheek with Ross Barkley, but he move was greeted with thunderous boos from Blues fans and the midfielder did little to inspire his team anyway.

Still lacking any rhythm in extra-time, Chelsea needed an agile goal-line clearance from Luiz to stop Sebastien Haller’s shot before the Frankfurt forward was denied again by Davide Zappacosta’s header off the line.

Azpilicueta thought he’d won it for Chelsea in the closing minutes when he bundled home after Trapp dropped Hazard’s cross, but the goal was controversially disallowed for the Spaniard’s challenge on the keeper, setting the stage for Kepa and Hazard to see the Blues through to Baku.

It will be the first time in the history of European football that one country has monopolised the two finals and means that both trophies will head to England.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang fired Arsenal into the Europa League final by scoring the hat-trick that ended Valencia’s hopes of another dramatic European comeback on Thursday.

Trailing 3-1 from the first leg, Valencia made the perfect start at Mestalla when Kevin Gameiro finished at the back post but goals from Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette left the home side needing four in 40 minutes.

Arsenal players celebraitng
Arsenal players celebraitng

Gameiro scored again to spark hopes of a revival to trump even the efforts of Liverpool and Tottenham this week before Aubameyang hit his second and then completed a brilliant hat-trick to seal a 4-2 win, 7-3 on aggregate.

It keeps alive Arsenal’s chance of securing a place in the Champions League next season and, realistically, their last chance, given they need to overturn three points and an eight-goal swing on Tottenham in the Premier League this weekend.

Standing in their way in Baku on May 29 will be London rivals Chelsea or Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt.

Valencia had been relying on the Europa League for Champions League qualification too, given they sit three points behind Getafe, who face a demoralised Barcelona on Sunday, with two games left in La Liga.

But over the two legs, Marcelino’s side could have few complaints. They were second best at Emirates Stadium and defensively frantic here.

Arsenal, usually so fragile away from home, picked them off with ease as Aubameyang and Lacazette, boasting 48 goals between them this season, proved themselves to be a first-class attack in a second-tier competition.

“Auba was unbelievable tonight,” Lacazaette told BT Sport. “We have played badly in the Premier League during the last month and now we have to use this opportunity. We want to play in the Champions League next season and we want the trophy.”

— Pain for Spain —

Thursday’s result means there will be no Spanish team in either European final for the first time since 2013, and only the second time in 10 years.

Valencia made a brilliant start as Jose Gaya headed wide at the near post and Goncalo Guedes fired over, with Petr Cech playing for time as early as the fifth minute in the hope of a chance for breath.

Instead, Arsenal conceded, caught upfield after Alex Maitland-Niles shot at Neto, who rolled out to launch the counter-attack. Rodrigo swept wide to Guedes and ran ahead of him, receiving and firing to the back post, where Gameiro slid in.

Valencia looked like they could score six let alone the one more required, only for Arsenal to find an equaliser against the run of play.

Cech punted downfield and Lacazette flicked on, with Aubameyang nipping in and, before his opponents could recover, driving into the bottom corner.

The rest of the half was high on intensity but low on quality as Valencia struggled to reboot. Aubameyang shot at Neto and Lacazette’s whipped effort clipped the outside of the post.

Half-time should have been timely for the hosts but it was Arsenal that scored shortly after.

Dani Parejo’s careless pass put them in trouble before Gaya was outmuscled. Lucas Torreira found Lacazette, who spun out of the clutches of Cristiano Piccini and buried the ball into the corner.

The tie looked done, Valencia needing four in 40 minutes, but they got one back eight minutes later, Gameiro diverting Rodrigo’s shot in after Daniel Wass had cut back.

Valencia believed again but only briefly because Aubameyang struck again. Maitland-Niles ghosted past Guedes and crossed to the near post, where Aubameyang was too quick for Gabriel Paulista.

Some of Valencia’s fans headed for the exits and even more followed when Aubameyang lashed another shot into the roof of the net for his third, and Arsenal’s fourth.

There have been Champions League finals contested by clubs from the same nation before. Real Madrid beat Atlético Madrid in 2014 and 2016. Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund lost to Bayern Munich at Wembley in 2013 while Manchester United and Chelsea played in the last all-English final in 2008, with United winning on penalties. Milan beat Juventus on penalties in 2003 while Real beat Valencia in 2000.

(AFP)