An aside: The FA Cup finalThis was the third meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup this century.
Hector Bellerin rampaged down the middle of the pitch stating from the wrong side of the centre circle. He soon left behind the already booked Mateo Kovacic and the shaky central defender Antonio Rudiger. When Christensen tackled him near the penalty box the ball ricocheted to record signing Nicolas Pepe on the right who in turn rolled to ever-reliable PierreEmerick Aubameyang. The third of the back three defenders Kurt Zouma tried to stop the smiling assassin from shooting with his stronger right foot. In a twitch of the hip, that would make a Bollywood dancer proud, the Gabonese had the ball on his left leaving the Frenchman floundering. Willy Caballero, the 38-year old goalkeeper, rushed forward, the goal machine coolly chipped with his weaker foot. The net ruffled. It was a goal of beauty and one to remember for the ages.
This column is dedicated to the Premier League but I have taken the liberty to digress. The league is over and more than a month remains for the new season to begin. Two Premier League powerhouses were playing the final of the world’s oldest football tournament in an empty 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium, the spiritual home of the game. This was the third meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup this century. In 2002 Arsenal were in the ascendency when English football was in love with their manager, the professorial Arsene Wenger. In 2017, Arsenal had been long in decline and the beloved manager was being hounded. Both times Arsenal prevailed.
This year’s FA Cup final was significant for at least two other reasons. Last year Chelsea had won the Europa League final in a canter against Arsenal. Chelsea had already booked their place in the Champions League but it was Arsenal’s final shot at a place in it if they beat Chelsea. Arsenal’s loss was the unravelling of Unai Emery’s brief (by Arsenal standards) reign. Therefore this was a chance for redemption for Arsenal. This year Chelsea had again already booked their place in the Champions League securing fourth position in the Premier League while Arsenal had missed out completely on European places coming lowly eighth, their worst position in 25 years. Win the FA Cup and they would be in the Europa League.
The second reason was this was the battle of the rookie managers – Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta. Both are young and a have point to prove. While Lampard had been in charge at Derby County in the Championship last season, Mikel Arteta had deputised under the formidable Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Lampard’s Chelsea, with promising young guns, had done rather well despite being erratic at times, while Arteta since his arrival in December had been more concerned with structure and building a resolve in a team known to have a soft belly for more than a decade. They were, so to speak, still finding their feet in the top flight but being at Wembley was already feather in their caps. In the semi-final Lampard beat Manchester United, who had thumped them 4-0 earlier in the season, while Arteta beat his former City side.
With both defences suspect, goals were expected but this also meant a potentially cagey game with neither team willing to be bold going forward. But a wonderfully well-worked fifth minute goal from Captain America Christian Pulisic ruled out the second possibility. With the goal began Arsenal’s gradual ascendancy, exploiting the slow Chelsea defence with long balls into space left behind by their wingbacks and the equaliser came when captain Cesar Azpilicueta pulled down his counterpart swift Pierre Emerick Aubameyang in the penalty box. Injuries to Azpilicueta and goal scorer Pulisic weakened Chelsea. Worse, they were hard done by with two soft yellow cards for midfielder Mateo Kovacic, the second one in the 73rd minute.
But by then Aubameyang had pulled off a sensation – as if from a magician’s hat.