Wow. It was, rather like the FA Cup semi-final, but with an even better performance, a case of where did that come from? If Arsenal could play like that more often etc, etc, etc.
Unlike the last time these two teams met in the final, 15 years ago, Arsenal were the underdogs, Chelsea the side going for the double. And with the absence of three central defenders, going into the game, most anticipated they’d end up like a boxer on the ropes, captain Per Mertesacker starting his first game of the season, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain playing the left wing back position for the first time, having impressed on the right side before his injury. Wenger, as he did in 2014 and 2015, stuck with his cup keeper rather than play the first choice in the final, which was generally considered to be a risky decision. Ospina suffered as first choice with Szczesny playing the 2015 final, so it would have been personally harsh on him for Cech to start.
So all set up for a Conte inspired and organized Chelsea side to complete their season in style and bring on John Terry for the final moments so the club captain could complete his career at the Bridge by lifting the FA Cup. However, Arsenal didn’t read the script.
Chelsea did create a few chances over the course of the match, but Wenger’s team had far more, and generally dominated the play. The early goal was key, and shrouded in controversy. From where I was sitting, it seemed an obvious handball. I couldn’t believe it when the goal was given after a discussion between the referee and the linesman. That Ramsey also influenced the decision of Courtois whether or not to come for the ball was another factor, and the reason for the debate between the officials. I can certainly understand Chelsea’s unhappiness with the award of the goal, and in fairness, it should not have been given. But isn’t winning cups sometimes down to a bit of luck? Wenger’s fortune may have eluded him in the Premier League this season, but it came good in this tournament, with the drawing of two non-league teams when the side were losing matches as a matter of course, and Manchester City’s hitting the woodwork twice in the semi-final.
His side earned their luck with a performance of spirit and quality. It was reminder of days long gone, and confirmation that, with Sanchez, Ozil and Ramsey all on song, this team is capable of great things, which merely crystallized the frustration that we have seen this level of performance so infrequently. I haven’t followed the latest Sanchez news, except for his listing as a Bayern player in Chile’s Confederations Cup squad, which may or not be a photoshop job, but someone told me the Chilean has stated he is happy to see out his contract and leave on a Bosman next season. If that is the case, it is a real test of the club’s assertion that they are not simply run as a business. Can you imagine them retaining an asset that will be worth nothing this time next year, having already taken a hit of circa £50 million for failing to make the Champions League? Certainly, the club need to keep him, even if it is only for one year. He is irreplaceable.
Arsenal enjoyed so many chances, to have lost the game would have been a travesty. Ozil, Ramsey and Welbeck all came close, with either Gary Cahill or the post coming to Chelsea’s rescue. It was 1-0 at the interval, and we anticipated an improved opposition coming out of the dressing room with Conte’s words ringing in their ears. I was astonished Fabregas was not brought on earlier, but the decision of basket case Victor Moses to take a dive in the area shortly after he finally entered the fray was costly as he was awarded a second yellow card.
Still, Chelsea, who had come back into the game, rallied and equalized, a deflection from Costa’s shot foiling Ospina, who might have done better. No matter. Giroud came on for Danny Welbeck before the game restarted and almost immediately the Frenchman crossed blind into the penalty area hoping someone would be there to get onto it. There were several contenders for the man of the match, but for me, it was Aaron Ramsey. He made constant runs beyond the frontline all match, reminding us of that purple patch he enjoyed about three seasons ago. It was fitting that one such run saw him convert Giroud’s cross to ultimately settle the game.
Other contenders for man of the match were Mertesacker, who had an incredible game under the circumstances, Xhaka, who pulled the strings all afternoon, and Sanchez, who was given the award officially. But there were standout performances throughout the team, especially the captain’s fellow defenders Holding and Monreal.
Chelsea had one gilt edged chance to equalize a second time but Ospina saved well from Costa. Arsenal had several opportunities to settle things and give their fans a relaxed final few minutes, but failed to convert, Ozil hitting the post an incredible miss after doing all the hard work. The final action of the game saw sub Elneny with the goal gaping in front of him, only for him to decide against shooting and check back. Incredible. The final whistle followed seconds later, and the celebrations began.
The amount of space at Wembley certainly helped Arsenal, their passing and movement exploiting the pitch, and one can almost look forward to the North London derby next season based on this performance. (Does this count as another trophy won at Spurs’ home ground?) And of course, we’ll all be back in August for the Community Shield game against Conte’s team, doubtless with some new faces.
As for Arsenal, well, a big decision awaits at Tuesday’s board meeting. The manager wishes to continue, and the smart money is that there will be some token changes to make it appear as if he is relinquishing some of the control. I sat next to the Highbury Spy at the game, and he told me he’d trade five years with no trophies to win this final. Talk about doing a deal with the devil. The final would actually be the perfect way for Wenger to bow out, but if he was going to do that of his own volition, surely he’d have talked with the stadium interviewer and announced it to the fans there and then. Interestingly, I didn’t hear a chant of ‘One Arsene Wenger’ during or after the game, that bond seems to have been broken by the events of this season.
It was a huge and surprising victory, and credit to Wenger for getting this performance out of his players, and winning a record seven FA Cups, more than half of the total the club have won in their history. It does raise questions about where this kind of intensity has been all season, and perhaps, in the post-match interview, captain Per Mertesacker gave a hint of things. Asked if the criticism of the manager had been unfair, the BFG responded ‘I don’t care’, explaining he was focused on getting himself ready for this game. He’s been fit since January, and he only started the final because the manager had run out of alternatives. There has been a fallout. Mertesacker was so good, one needs to ask why he wasn’t used at any other time since his return from fitness as the team went of a sequence of humiliating defeats. There was no huge gathering of the squad around the manager after the final whistle to throw him up in the air. One suspects the players may have motivated themselves in the semi-final and final because there was a trophy at stake.
Whatever the reason, it was a memorable performance, easily the best this season, and probably the best for a few years. It would be far better to remember Arsene Wenger this way than he end up being barracked by the fans, as will surely happen next season once events follow their usual course. We watch and wait…
Enjoy the summer everybody.
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