Arsenal’s difficult season ends in FA Cup elation at Wembley
Arsene Wenger’s side fully deserving of win as champions Chelsea miss out on double
Arsenal celebrate their FA Cup final victory over Chelsea at Wembley. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/Getty
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1
Amid all the euphoria for Arsenal, there has to be a school of thought that perhaps these are now the ideal circumstances for Arsène Wenger to step aside. His team had won, thrillingly, against the champions of England, making Wenger the most successful manager in the history of this competition. It was his seventh victory and these are the occasions that remind us why a manager with his record of achievement surely deserves a happy ending.
Equally, these must be the kind of occasions when Wenger is reminded what it is about football that makes it an addiction. It is a hard habit to kick and his team chose a good moment to put in their best performance of the season, beating a Chelsea side for whom Victor Moses suffered the indignity of being sent off for two bookable offences.
That Moses was guilty of a penalty-box dive for the second booking probably sums up the state to which Arsenal reduced their opponents after Alexis Sánchez had given them an early lead. Diego Costa’s equaliser did conjure up the possibility of an improbable comeback for Chelsea’s ten men.
But those thoughts were short-lived. Aaron Ramsey’s winner arrived two minutes later and, though it is a debate for another day perhaps, Wenger must wonder why his team cannot play to these levels more regularly.
Arsenal played as though affronted by the fact they had finished 18 points behind Chelsea in the league. They also had to get by without key personnel in defence and cobbled together a backline that had Per Mertesacker starting his first match in 13 months. Mertesacker is 32, with a 14-year professional career behind him, but this was the first time he has ever lined up in a three-man defence. Wenger experimented with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with lingering questions about his fitness, on the left. And then there was the perplexing choice of David Ospina, his manager deciding his loyalty should go towards a second-choice goalkeeper who will leave this summer while leaving out the one, Petr Cech, who will stay.
All of which made it strange that Arsenal started the game in a way that could legitimately be described as the most torrid 30-minute spell Chelsea have endured all season.
Arsenal were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and neat in possession. More than anything, they seemed free of the self-doubt that has often infiltrated their performances when they have faced Chelsea.
Mesut Özil, for instance, seemed absolutely determined to leave his imprint on the final. Sánchez, possibly making his last appearance in Arsenal’s colours, shimmered with menace and now has 30 goals for the season. Danny Welbeck brought a mix of speed and directness and, by half-time, the only frustration for Wenger could have been that they had not added more goals.
As it was, they had to make do with just one and Chelsea are entitled to question whether it ought to have stood, not because of the issue with offside but more for the handball from Sánchez before he was in a position to fire a shot past Thibaut Courtois with the outside of his boot. There was no doubt Aaron Ramsey was in an offside position as Sánchez charged the ball down. Yet Ramsey had the presence of mind to step aside as Sánchez continued his charge and if the argument was purely about offside the referee, Anthony Taylor, and his assistant, Gary Beswick, did eventually get it right. The handball had not been noticed and scoring so early undoubtedly helped Arsenal settle into the final quicker than their opponents.
Chelsea’s struggles in the first half were epitomised by their carelessness before Sánchez’s goal, with Diego Costa managing to get in the way of N’Golo Kanté and the two players contriving to lose the ball. Arsenal, in contrast, used the ball effectively and it needed a brilliant, improvisational clearance from Gary Cahill to prevent Özil from doubling the lead after Sánchez led a 15th-minute break. Four minutes later, Welbeck’s header from an Özil corner came back off the post, struck Ramsey in the chest and ricocheted against the woodwork again before bouncing out for a goalkick. It was rare to see Chelsea look so vulnerable – a difficult day for Kanté, Marcos Alonso and several others in blue – and there were plenty of other occasions in the opening 45 minutes when they might have been punished for their lethargy.
All the while, however, there was the clear sense that if Arsenal could not take these chances there was always the likelihood that their opponents would eventually get their act together and, sure enough, the pattern of the game switched after the interval. Chelsea finally shook their heads clear and, to be fair to Ospina, it was a fine one-handed save to keep out Victor Moses during the first period when Conte’s men started to pin Arsenal back.
Unfortunately for Ospina, his attempt to keep out Costa’s bouncing shot was questionable, to say the least, but he did make amends after Ramsey’s goal with another fine save to prevent Chelsea’s leading scorer from taking the game into extra time. Olivier Giroud had set up Ramsey’s header with a brilliant cross, his first touch after coming on as a substitute, and Chelsea were denied the league and cup double.