Baku: Oh, the irony. No one less than Oliver Giroud, the striker who for so long at Arsenal stood accused of ineptitude, crippled Arsenal with an outstanding header to kickstart a murderous, goal-laden twenty-three-minute Chelsea onslaught that was a damning indictment of Arsenal's stagnation and how other clubs like Chelsea, where Eden Hazard displayed why he is so coveted by Real Madrid, have run away from an institution that yesteryear reinvented the English game. Emerson Palmieri's cross, Giroud's quick movement in front of Laurent Koscielny and the measured header were all a testimony to Chelsea's superiority. In agony, Unai Emery waived with his hands on the touchline, but in a tale of two halves, his Arsenal were impotent and ultimately simply outclassed. An undulating season dissipated at last.
Yet, it could have been so different for Arsenal. That is the perpetual frustration at the Emirates Stadium. It all felt too familiar: the sense of opportunity, the hope, the rued chances, the implosion, the terminally-bad defending, the emotional collapse, the lackadaisical attitude and the wry capitulation at the end.
This was so much more than just a European Cup final for Arsenal and an endeavor, like Chelsea, to gloss over a truncated ten months with a sparkling season-ending triumph. In Baku, Arsenal were yet again on an existential crossroads: a win would make success tangible and provide a launchpad for next season, breaking open the gilded door of Europe's elite grouping with a Champions League ticket; a defeat would prolong the identity crisis under Emery.
The first 45 minutes belied that this was a European Cup final. The camera angles were provided from outer space, the press box was located in the upper deck. That reduced Arsenal versus Chelsea clash to a curious spectacle of plodding players who looked uncoordinated and slow " pawns moving over an unkempt green patch. But the TV coverage and vantage point did not the pedestrian nature of an unimaginative game. There was a far-aways pre-season friendly feel to this London derby. It might as well have been a game in Miami or Singapore on a dry and patchy field with players engaging in a lavish branding exercise and the fans reciprocating approval with polite applause.
It felt strangely equitable for a London derby 2500 miles from Westminster that had tarnished the reputation of both Azerbaijan and UEFA " as an irresponsible governing body. This final was always going to be remembered for all the wrong reasons and with a sedative first-half the finalists seemed to confirm the Baku ploy had been an abomination all along. Had everyone involved simply tired after a protected build-up and the transcontinental hike that took some as far Doha to then perform a U-turn to reach Baku? Not the players, who were neatly holed up in luxury hotels near the Baku beach, but Chelsea seemed to show a genuine disinterest, perhaps hamstrung by a fractious relationship between the players-group and the coach, perhaps adamant in making this the earliest pre-season friendly yet.
Amid all the midfield faffing, Arsenal were most dangerous. Emery didn't copy the successful 4-3-1-2 formation of the January win against the West London rivals, playing nominally three at the back but he retained the Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang-Alexandre Lacazette combo up front. In the eighth minute, Aubameyang had a sniff at goal and twenty minutes later Granit Xhaka sent a screamer goal-ward that nearly kissed the woodwork. In between the Arsenal's number fourteen had a penalty appeal waved away by Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi and the VAR.
After the half-hour mark, Chelsea grew into the game and Oliver Giroud forced a fine save from Petr Cech, the soon-to-be sporting director at Stamford Bridge. The Blues opened Arsenal up with some intricate one-touch play before Jorginho teed up the French striker for a menacing shot. It was a sign of things to come. Giroud's split-second of radiance running in ahead of the Arsenal captain, ignoring the studs and raising the meet Emerson's assist preceded a monumental collapse from an Arsenal defense that was carved open all too easily and needs so much work. Time and again Arsenal were exposed on the counter. Some of the old frailties resurfaced: Arsenal didn't track back, a long-identified deficiency of Mesut Ozil, who often spilled possession as well. The German was invisible, displaying his infuriating. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was overrun and badgered Giroud to concede a penalty.
Koscienly's body language was indicative. There was to be neither an emotional recovery nor a sporting fightback. At 3-0 Iwobi responded with an excellent volley, but there was no coming back from a scoreline that permitted as much this season in Europe. Joe Willock's 77th-minute introduction was symptomatic of the disarray Arsenal found themselves.
Little could justify Arsenal extraordinary implosion. At a key juncture, Arsenal have failed again. They slinked off the field reflecting on a transitional season in which Emery and his players were never convincing in moving the club away from the enduring washouts of Wenger's influence.
At the start of the season, there was a flickering hope. Arsenal enjoyed a 22-game unbeaten stretch from August to October, but into the new year and on the back of of a 5-1 drubbing at Anfield Arsenal's identity remained vague. The sublime - a high-octane 4-2 win against Tottenham - was too often alternated with negative results that exposed a lack of ball retention, pressing, mettle and creativity. A wayward away form in the Premier League cost them dear.
On Saturday, Tottenham will be playing the final of the Champions League, a competition Arsenal will not play for a fourth consecutive season come September, a stat that reflects the new pecking order in North London. Arsenal have become a relic left behind by Wenger and the club's deep-running problems Emery is increasingly struggling to address.