Monday 18 December 2017

FA Cup king Wenger proves he's still the man for the big occasion

Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1

Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey celebrates scoring their second goal. Photo: Reuters
Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey celebrates scoring their second goal. Photo: Reuters

The long league campaigns, the Champions League's dreaded barrier of the round of 16 - these are the challenges that Arsene Wenger has found ever harder to negotiate over the years. But there is only one king of the FA Cup, the 67-year-old Frenchman who has now won it a record seven times.

What this seventh triumph - Wenger's third FA Cup in four years - says about Arsenal's manager is that he is still a man for the big occasion whatever his failings might be over the months of a long domestic and European season. He can still set up a team capable of beating the champions, of taking Antonio Conte's 3-4-3 formation and improving this piece of football innovation with a 2.0 version of his own.

Arsene Wenger lifts the FA Cup trophy after Arsenal's win over Chelsea in FA Cup final Aaron Ramsey scored a 79th-minute header to earn Arsenal a stunning 2-1 win and deliver embattled manager Wenger a record seventh FA Cup. Photo: Getty Images
Arsene Wenger lifts the FA Cup trophy after Arsenal's win over Chelsea in FA Cup final Aaron Ramsey scored a 79th-minute header to earn Arsenal a stunning 2-1 win and deliver embattled manager Wenger a record seventh FA Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Against Chelsea, Wenger's Arsenal did all the things a great Cup-winning team must do, including making the running early on and scoring through Alexis Sanchez within the first five minutes. Then, when they thought they had won the game, doing it all over again after Diego Costa's equaliser. Before Aaron Ramsey scored the winner, Chelsea had lost Victor Moses to a second yellow card for a dive that no one in a Chelsea shirt protested.

This was Arsenal as Wenger would have them every week if possible, a liberated Mesut Ozil, feeding into the ruthless running of Sanchez. Danny Welbeck let loose, running the legs off the Chelsea defence. Even David Ospina, selected ahead of Petr Cech in goal, threw himself in front of a Costa shot in the 86th minute that would have taken the game to extra-time had it gone in.

The question of a new contract for Wenger is surely now just a case of when, and at last he has created an environment where the club's controlling stakeholder Stan Kroenke, in attendance at Wembley, can make the strongest possible case for it. No other manager has won the FA Cup seven times and no other manager can quite pull a result out to change the weather when he needs it most.

There was something in the way that Arsenal approached the very first few minutes of the game, the period during which they scored, which suggested that they were at ease on this occasion and prepared to take their time. There was an extraordinary passing sequence that went forwards and backwards before eventually a bit of boldness meant they won a corner.

Arsenal's Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring the opening goal. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal's Chilean striker Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring the opening goal. Photo: Getty Images

Just minutes had gone by when Thibaut Courtois took the cross cleanly, threw the ball out and from there Chelsea's lack of composure was telling. They lost possession through N'Golo Kante, who had a dreadful first half by his standards, and they missed chances to get the ball back, while their opponents seemed alive to all the possibilities that opened up to them.

The goal was a complicated affair during which referee Anthony Taylor first blew as if to disallow but instead gave himself time to speak to his assistant Gary Beswick. At stake were two issues, the first of which was whether Sanchez handled when he won the ball on the edge of the area and pushed it through the Chelsea defence to run onto and score with a left-foot shot past Courtois. And was Aaron Ramsey offside amid all the excitement?

Certainly Ramsey was in an offside position, but by no means interfering.

The handball was a difficult call and what Taylor seemed to be conferring on was the offside issue. After a discussion he gave the goal and with it Arsenal took the confidence to assert themselves throughout the first half.

There were fine performances from Sanchez but also from Ozil, who always had the space, often from quite deep positions, to pick up the ball and try to thread it through to his Chilean team-mate. Welbeck, selected ahead of Olivier Giroud as the Arsenal centre-forward, was superb and was one of two Arsenal players who had first-half shots cleared off the line by Gary Cahill.

Chelsea were being pulled out of shape. Kante seemed to be in the wrong place most of the time when it came to tracking the runs of Ozil. Eden Hazard just failed to show before the break.

It was a better Chelsea that emerged for the second half, with more of the ball and more of the territory but not always clear ideas about what to do with it. Hazard had moments in possession when the palms were raised as he asked for options and none were forthcoming.

None looked more confident in those early stages of the second half than Ozil who had limited scope to create chances but seemed serene when on the ball. Welbeck was having one of his best games in an Arsenal shirt, stretching Chelsea and drawing the foul from Moses that led to the winger's first yellow card.

There was no argument about that one just as there was very little about the second awarded by referee Taylor who, as he had done for the Sanchez goal, blew his whistle, took a moment to think and then made the correct decision under heavy pressure. Moses had come in down the right channel, taken the ball on his left to go past Oxlade-Chamberlain and then went down as he passed the Arsenal man.

Even before then Conte had tried to change his team, bringing on Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, and later Willian replaced Pedro. It was the Brazilian who crossed for Costa's equaliser, a fine finish which he chested down and clipped past Ospina.

Wenger's decision to replace Welbeck with Giroud yielded immediate dividends. It was Giroud's intelligent run and fine cross that Ramsey headed in from close range. This was Arsenal's day and they would not let Chelsea into the game again.

Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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