Sanchez strikes in extra-time to send Arsenal into FA Cup final
Arsène Wenger’s side show grit to see off Manchester City and set up Chelsea clash
Arsenal celebrate Alexis Sanchez’s extra-time winner which saw them beat Manchester City to reach the FA Cup final. Photograph: Reuters/Toby Melville
Arsenal 2 Manchester City 1 (after extra time)
It has not been an easy season for Arsène Wenger by any measure but it will at least have the possibility of a happy ending and, once again, he can look forward to an FA Cup final. It will be the eighth of his 20 years at Arsenal and it is probably worth remembering, amid all the criticism that comes his way, that he has won six of the previous seven. Or, to put it another way, his personal total amounts to the same number Leeds United, Sunderland, West Ham United and Leicester City have managed altogether.
Wenger is also outnumbering Manchester City, who have won the competition five times, and the fact it will be Arsenal taking on Chelsea on May 27th amounts to a personal ordeal for Pep Guardiola given what it means for his first season in charge of Manchester City. The Catalan’s arrival was supposed to make City credible challengers for every trophy going, starting with the Champions League. In reality, they have gone out at the first knockout stage in Europe, they managed only two games in the EFL Cup and now their latest disappointment comes at a time when they are fourth in the table.
Guardiola’s team cannot even be guaranteed a place in the Champions League next season, with Thursday’s fourth-against-fifth encounter with Manchester United looking increasingly important, and his disappointment will be exacerbated by the way this semi-final unfolded. His team had led, after 62 minutes, through Sergio Agüero’s breakaway goal and the same player also scored a perfectly legitimate goal late in the first half only for a linesman to judge, mistakenly, that Leroy Sané’s cross had gone out of play in the build-up.
At 1-1, there was a three-minute spell when City hit the woodwork twice, first through Yaya Touré’s volley and then Fernandinho’s header, but Arsenal also deserve immense credit for turning the game upside down once Nacho Monreal had drawn them level.
Arsenal’s competitive courage has been questioned all season but not on this occasion. They rode their luck at times but they also recognised there were imperfections in City’s defence and, 11 minutes into the first period of extra time, the ball was at Alexis Sánchez’s feet inside the penalty area. Sánchez was quick, alert and clinical, firing in the goal that will mean an all-London final.
It was a pulsating semi-final but, for City, it was also one laced with controversy and they will leave Wembley with a smouldering sense of injustice because of the incident, five minutes before half-time, when they were denied a goal because of a trigger-happy linesman.
For once, Kevin De Bruyne had slightly overhit his pass, meaning Sané did well even to reach the ball before it went out for a goal-kick. From that position, it was a lovely cross he arched towards the far post and, though it was a matter of millimetres, the television replays confirmed that the ball had stayed in play. Agüero’s shot was scrambled away by Petr Cech, behind the goalline, and Raheem Sterling made sure from the rebound before City’s celebrations were cut short by the realisation that the assistant referee, Steve Child, had already raised his flag.
That was far from the only contentious incident and City’s complaints will also take in another moment in the first half when Agüero went down in the penalty area with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in close proximity. Arsenal will argue, in turn, they could have had a penalty of their own after Sánchez claimed he had been impeded by Jesús Navas.
It was a difficult afternoon for the referee, Craig Pawson, and his assistants and it also hindered City that David Silva had been forced off early on with an injury that demonstrated just how important the Spaniard is to his team. Silva was incensed about the challenge from Gabriel Paulista that led to his withdrawal, still remonstrating with Pawson as he went off, and the game became more evenly contested once he had left the pitch.
It was not until the early part of the second half, however, that Arsenal had their first sustained period of pressure and the paradox is that was the period when Agüero ran away to open the scoring.
Arsenal’s vulnerability to the quick, incisive counter-attack has been a feature all season and on this occasion it needed only one pass once Aaron Ramsey had lost the ball to Touré close to the City penalty area. Touré, such a brilliant big-game player, aimed the ball 40 yards upfield and Agüero had the speed and directness to get away from Monreal. Cech was slow to react after a slightly heavy touch from Agüero and the Argentinian punished him by flicking the ball past him.
After that, a different team than City might have attempted to close the game down. That, however, is not the way Guardiola’s side operate and Arsenal, after a cautious first half, had started to play with much less restraint.
Close analysis of their new 3-4-2-1 system should also note that it was one wing-back who created the equaliser and another who scored it. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross created the danger and Monreal chose a good time to score his first goal of the season, driving in a low right-footed volley.
Both sides could have won the match from that point onwards but the decisive moment came from Sánchez, alert as always, after Laurent Koscielny had headed Mesut Özil’s free-kick across the penalty area. The substitute Danny Welbeck had the next touch and then it was left to Sánchez, nipping in between Gaël Clichy and Vincent Kompany, to deliver the telling blow.