Pedro is Blues saviour as Hazard gamble pays off
FOR Maurizio Sarri, a night of rare vindication. It has not happened too often for the Italian during his debut season in English football but in the Frankfurt furnace, the manager had the coolest head.
When the teamsheets emerged, the tone of the evening was set.
For a European semi- final, Chelsea’s best player Eden Hazard was on the bench. It was a potentially calamitous call.
Chelsea have crashed and burned away from home against far worse sides than Eintracht Frankfurt this season and Hazard has often been a one-man tornado, swirling away from opponents and turbo- charging Chelsea’s hopes and dreams. Yet from Sarri’s perspective, it was logical. the Italian is simply trying to stay in a job and he has calculated that Chelsea’s most probable route to the Champions league is through a top-four finish in the Premier league.
now two points clear of Arsenal, Chelsea can win two games — Watford at home, leicester away — and they are back among the elite. Keep Hazard fresh for those and the Belgian should see his team over the line.
Yet Hazard, surely keen to end his Chelsea career with a medal around his neck next month, will not have welcomed the call.
He did arrive on the hour, by which time Frankfurt’s frantic tempo had slowed, and he helped Chelsea to a creditable draw.
It helped, too, that Sarri’s team demonstrated a resolve that has not always been apparent this season. Indeed, Chelsea were quite excellent in the second period, meriting a win as the derided Jorginho, perceived as flimsy and lightweight, did his best terry Butcher impression when he soldiered on with a bandage around his head (right).
Alongside Jorginho, Ruben loftus-Cheek grew in prominence and once again made you wonder why and how Mateo Kovacic has so often been selected ahead of him this season.
Yet when luka Jovic scored midway through the first half, this had the makings of a perilous night. Instead, Chelsea responded by securing parity and a crucial away goal by half time.
Still, the Hazard omission did speak for the peculiar priorities of the modern game. Chelsea, we should remember, have won only four major European trophies in their entire history and Sarri is still to win any silverware at all. Evenings such as these should not be taken for granted.
While English clubs treat the
Europa League as a pesky means to a glorious Champions League end, it the opportunity of a lifetime for more modest clubs such as Frankfurt.
This semi-final is the club’s first since the German team lifted the trophy in 1980 and all sides of the stadium filled up 45 minutes before kick-up. A heady blur of colour and sound made for a deafening, intimidating environment.
Chelsea, hardly the grittiest visitors even when Hazard starts, looked shell- shocked for the opening half-hour but Sarri’s team did not help themselves.
Pedro lost three 50/ 50 challenges in the first ten minutes alone.
Loftus-Cheek twice gave up possession cheaply as Frankfurt’s players matched their breathless supporters, pressing Chelsea into submission. Chelsea have enjoyed a generous run in this competition, traversing much of Eastern Europe and dipping into Scandinavia. Yet Frankfurt are a serious outfit and in 21-year- old Jovic, they possess one of the continent’s most gifted talents. Frankfurt battered Shakhtar Donetsk on this ground and have since knocked out Inter Milan and Benfica. The lead came in the 23rd minute and it was a magnificent demonstration of Jovic’s qualities. Olivier Giroud sloppily conceded possession and Frankfurt sped away on the counter-attack. The ball was worked left to Filip Kostic, who planted a leftfooted cross which seemed to be behind Jovic — but the Serbian stooped, arched his neck and steered a fabulous header into the corner of the goal. Little wonder that Real Madrid and Barcelona are engaged in a race to sign the striker.
Frankfurt briefly threatened to run amok yet Chelsea settled themselves. Pedro rasped a shot wide and Loftus-Cheek then found space and drove past the post.
The equaliser came on the cusp of half-time, as Pedro took the ball down inside the penalty area and placed a left-footed strike into the corner. At last, the stadium fell silent.
Chelsea players returned early for the second period and found their stride. Frankfurt appeared run down by their earlier exertions and Chelsea grew in authority. Loftus- Cheek spearheaded the charge, dropping a shoulder in midfield and galloping towards goal. He exchanged passes with Pedro and seemed certain to score, only to skew his effort over the top. Chelsea came close again, as a David Luiz free-kick smacked against the crossbar.
Chelsea might have lost it late on, allowing Frankfurt captain David Abraham a free header.
Level best: Pedro (centre) e) fires home the e equaliser and (inset, left) celebrates with Giroud