Regardless of how Chelsea enter the Champions League next season, it cannot be said they lacked merit navigating either path.
Already assured of a top-four finish and now in the Europa League final, the Pensioners can exhale ahead of their season finale Sunday at King Power Stadium versus Leicester City.
Chelsea (21-8-8) will wrap up third with a victory in this match and will finish no worse than fourth pending the results of Tottenham’s match versus Everton and Arsenal’s contest at Burnley. While it has been a tumultuous first season at Stamford Bridge with Maurizio Sarri in charge, the Italian manager will get his second chance at a trophy after Chelsea advanced to the Europa League final opposite Arsenal by defeating Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties Thursday.
In some ways, the Blues were fortunate to escape with a victory after playing 180 minutes versus the Bundesliga side on level terms. Cesar Azpilicueta should have been sent off for a studs-up challenge in the second half. Two goal-line clearances in extra time — first by David Luiz and then by Davide Zappacosta – helped preserve the 1-1 second-leg scoreline and 2-2 aggregate before penalties.
In the shootout, it was keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga vindicating himself for the controversy he created in the Carabao Cup final shootout loss with his refusal to come off when it appeared he had been injured. The Spain international saved Frankfurt’s last two penalties, stopping one with his shin and pushing the second out, before Eden Hazard – in what may have been his final match at Stamford Bridge – calmly ripped home Chelsea’s fifth attempt for the match-winner.
“We played a first final this season and we lost so now we want to win,” said Sarri, who could not bear to watch the final two rounds of penalties, post-match. “Our group deserve to as three months ago we were in trouble. It is not easy to overcome difficulties here because the opposition teams are so strong, but we were able to do it so now we deserve to win a trophy.”
Though separated by only six miles in London, the two sides will travel approximately 2,800 to Baku, Azerbaijan, to play the final at the end of the month. Chelsea will be merely playing for the trophy while Arsenal — unlikely to pip Spurs for fourth in the table — will be playing for the Champions League spot that goes to the victors.
Yet the match will mean the world to Sarri, who has never lifted a trophy at any coaching level among his multiple stops throughout the chain of Italian football before arriving in London this season with midfielder Jorginho in tow.
With nothing at stake in terms of the table or European play, much of the focus of this match will turn to Hazard and whether he will stay or continue on to Real Madrid as expected. The Belgium international has had a magnificent season with 19 goals and 16 assists in all competitions and is out of contract after next season, which means Chelsea can currently stand firm with their transfer fee request of at least £100 million.
The two-window transfer ban Chelsea face that was recently upheld by FIFA does not directly affect the Hazard move, but their appeal to sport’s governing body CAS is likely to include provisions to delay the ban until their case is ruled upon, which means Chelsea would be able to spend this summer with the money gained from Hazard’s transfer fee.
Chelsea may field many of their second-choice players for this match considering they are also flying to Boston for a “Final Whistle on Hate” charity match versus the New England Revolution of Major League Soccer on Wednesday. The Pensioners confirmed their 23-man roster last week, and it includes many first-string players, including Hazard, Willian, Arrizabalaga, Jorginho, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Olivier Giroud, and Gonzalo Higuain.
One player who definitely will not feature for Chelsea in Sunday’s match versus Leicester City is former Foxes midfielder N’Golo Kante, who is sidelined with a hamstring injury suffered in last weekend’s win over Watford.
Leicester City (15-6-16) need a draw to all but mathematically secure a top-half finish and could pass Everton for eighth with a victory and a loss by the Toffees to Tottenham Hotspur. The Foxes came agonizingly close to throwing a huge spanner into the Premier League title race Monday, losing 1-0 at Manchester City on a wonder goal by Vincent Kompany in the 70th minute.
The loss was harsh on the Midlands club, especially keeper Kasper Schmeichel as the Denmark No. 1 made two top-draw saves on either side of halftime to keep the match scoreless. He was helpless to stop Kompany’s 30-yard thunderbolt that went into the upper right 90.
Former Cityzens striker Kelechi Iheanacho had a chance to grab a point for Leicester late but squandered a gilt-edged chance with Ederson at his mercy. The Foxes left Manchester with heads held high, but also with a very clear vision of how much ground they must recover to challenge the champions-elect next season.
“We needed to carry that into the second half and we didn’t, so we’ll analyse that,” manager Brendan Rodgers told LCFC.TV. “We started to go a little bit longer with our build-up play and the problem with that is it gives you a little bit of a rest for one second, but then it comes back quicker.
“That’s what happened in the build-up to their goal. We got deeper and deeper. We recovered when they scored and we started to play again. We had probably the best chance in the game with young Kelechi Iheanacho, which unfortunately he didn’t take.”
Foxes striker Jamie Vardy needs a brace in this contest to reach the 20-goal mark in league play for the third time in four seasons. The former England international has given Chelsea fits of late, scoring three times in the last four matchups in all competitions, and had the match-winner in the reverse fixture – a 1-0 Leicester City victory at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 22.
Leicester City are seeking their first top-flight double over Chelsea since 2000-01, and the win in December snapped a seven-match winless streak (0-2-5) in all competitions versus the Pensioners. Chelsea have won four straight in the Midlands since a 2-1 defeat in December 2015.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 2, Chelsea 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 38 PREVIEWS
Brighton and Hove Albion (9-9-19) vs. Manchester City (31-2-4)
Liverpool (29-7-1) vs. Wolverhampton (16-9-12)
Tottenham Hotspur (23-1-13) vs. Everton (15-8-14)
Crystal Palace (13-7-17) vs. Bournemouth (13-6-18)
(Kepa Arrizabalaga photo courtesy Chelsea FC official Twitter account)
(James Maddison/Kasper Schmeichel photo courtesy Leicester City official Twitter account)