RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY —- Arsenal defied the prophets of further doom as they outscrambled Chelsea to win the FA Cup by 2-1 for a record-extending 13th time and after one of the most dramatically breathless finals in recent years.
Alexis Sanchez gave the Gunners a controversial third-minute lead and they hit the posts twice and had two efforts scrambled off the line before Chelsea equalised through Diego Costa in the 76th minute. Remarkably Chelsea had managed to square matters despite having been reduced to 10 men by the expulsion of wingback Victor Moses.
Arsenal responded immediately by regaining the lead within two minutes, and decisively this time, through Aaron Ramsey – the second time the Wales midfielder had claimed the winner in a Cup Final.
Victory was undoubtedly deserved against a Chelsea team who seemed to have left their legs behind in victorious pursuit of the Premier League crown. The only mystery was why Arsenal had waited until the last game of the season to produced such a spirited performance.
The stage had been set perfectly for a peak-event London derby. In the blue corner champions Chelsea, pursuing a first-season double for manager Antonio Conte; in the red corner Arsenal, pursuing an end-of-term glimmer of light for a new era, with or without manager Arsene Wenger.
Not only were Chelsea borne into the finals on the wings of Premier title success but with confidence enhanced by knowledge of their victories over Manchester United and Tottenham along Wembley way.
Arsenal, by contrast, arrived with uncertainty over the future of Wenger, their defence in suspension and injury tatters and with Petr Cech fuming at being overlooked in favour of ‘cup keeper’ David Ospina.
Further fragility in the dressingroom was the knowledge that Sánchez, Mesut Özil and Oxlade-Chamberlain are entering the final year on their contracts.
Yet it was Arsenal who struck the first blow. Ramsey, standing in an offside position, made an initial move towards towards a ball lofted over the Chelsea defence then stopped, allowing Sanchez to shoot home from close range. It was the Chilean’s 30th of term.
Initially the assistant flagged for offside but referee Anthony Taylor, after consulting with the linesman, signalled a goal, to Chelsea’s anger.
After 15 minutes it could have been 2-0 but Ozil’s angled shot on the right was scrambled off the line by Gary Cahill.
Ozil played a key role when Arsenal almost scored yet again. His right-wing corner was headed against a post by Danny Welbeck and the ball ricocheted back at Ramsey and, this time, against the outside of the same post.
Not until the 28th minute did Chelsea mount a threat of their own when Diego Costa outpaced Rob Holding only to be foiled by Ospina. Asenal then broke away and Welbeck was foiled by yet another goal-line clearance.
With half-time approaching and only one goal in it, Pedro smashed a shot hastily high over the bar.
Chelsea came out for the second half as if Conte had lit a fire of fury under them for a sloppy first-half performance. They commanded midfield and applied all the pressure.
Kante saw a drive saved high up by Ospina who then dived right to fist away a powerful low drive from Moses.
A sign emerged of Chelsea’s growing concern and Conte’s increasing impatience when he called up the first substitute, replacing the ineffective Nemanja Matic with Cesc Fabregas, who had won the cup back in 2005 with Arsenal.
Fabregas had been on the pitch only minutes when Chelsea were reduced to 10 men by the expulsion of Moses, booked for a second time in 12 minutes for a dive in search of a penalty under pressure from Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Despite this handicap Chelsea hit back with newly-arrived substitute Willian setting up an equaliser which Costa scuffed low past Ospina in the 76th minute.
Remarkably then Arsenal bounced back themselves, regaining the lead with a close-range header from Ramsey to a left-wing cross from Olivier Giroud, Arsenal’s own newly-introduced substitute.
Ozil could have sealed it on the break in the 87th minute; instead his deliberate drive struck Courtois’s left-hand post.
It mattered not. Within minutes referee Taylor had blown his final whistle.
The one question it left unanswered concerned Wenger’s own future. A board meeting in midweek will apparently be apprised of his decision on a two-year contract extension.
The game goes on . . .
Arsenal: Ospina – Holding, Mertesacker, Monreal – Bellerin, Ramsey, Xhaka, Oxlade-Chamberlain (Coquelin 82) – Sanchez (Elneny 90), Welbeck (Giroud 77), Ozil.
Chelsea: Courtois – Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill – Moses, Kante, Matic (Fabregas 60), Alonso – Pedro (Willian 71), Diego Costa (Batshuayi 87), Hazard.
Ref: Anthony Taylor.