By Chris Harris at the Millennium Stadium
A late header from Didier Drogba brought an unhappy end to Arsenal's Carling Cup adventure after an intoxicating Final at the Millennium Stadium.
Theo Walcott chose the perfect stage to break his duck for Arsenal, slotting past Petr Cech after 12 minutes. It was no more than Arsène Wenger's side deserved after a blistering start to the match. Drogba equalised eight minutes later and then landed the cruellest of blows with six minutes remaining.
Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor were dismissed in stoppage time after a clash between Toure and Jon Obi Mikel sparked an ugly brawl. Hopefully the quality of this contest, rather than the red cards, will hog the headlines.
Ultimately, the result was harsh on the young Gunners, who showed their class once more and held the upper hand for much of the game. But after seeing off West Brom, Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham, this was a bridge too far for Wenger's new generation.
The Arsenal manager had pledged to keep faith with the players who carried Arsenal to their first League Cup Final for 14 years and the Frenchman was true to his word. Once again he opted for a mix of first-teamers, fringe players and talented teenagers.
Justin Hoyte was passed fit after shrugging off a hamstring problem but Gael Clichy (foot) was ruled out. Emmanuel Eboue, who only returned to full training on Friday after a persistent ankle injury, was named among the substitutes. With Thierry Henry and Gilberto absent, Toure had the honour of leading Arsenal out.
The average age of Arsenal's outfield players was just under 21. This would be the ultimate test for Wenger's fledglings against Chelsea's expensively-assembled collection of superstars.
As you'd expect this game was a sell-out but it kicked off with plenty of vacant seats around the Millennium Stadium. Severe train delays had left many supporters stranded miles outside the Welsh capital. The latecomers missed a magnificent start by Arsenal.
The youngest Gunners could have been forgiven a few nerves on the biggest day of their careers but it certainly didn't show. From the off Wenger's team popped the ball around with confidence and panache. Chelsea were chasing shadows for the first 20 minutes.
Cech was called into action as early as the fifth minute. Walcott's attempted one-two with Abou Diaby was cut out but the ball was only cleared as far as Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the box. The Spaniard's first-time shot warmed the hands of Chelsea's keeper.
The signs looked good. Arsenal looked assured, Walcott looked lively, Diaby and Denilson were bossing the midfield alongside Fabregas and Baptista was in the mood. 'The Beast' brushed aside two muscular challenges in the opening stages and linked play well in his deep-lying striker's role.
Baptista almost broke the deadlock himself in the seventh minute, collecting Denilson's pass on the edge of the box and turning his opponent before scuffing a left-foot shot across the box. Jeremie Aliadiere was inches away from converting the loose ball.
Shortly afterwards Baptista's stinging shot was tipped past the post by Cech. In stark contrast, Manuel Almunia was a spectator at the other end. An Arsenal goal looked very much on the cards and it duly arrived after 12 minutes.
Walcott started and finished the move. Collecting a half-cleared corner, the 17-year-old found Diaby. The Frenchman evaded a challenge and slipped the ball back towards Walcott, with Baptista also lurking in a dangerous position. The teenager got there first, took the ball in his stride and curled a shot into the corner. Walcott had talked earlier in the week about how he doesn't feel pressure. His finish underlined that - what a way for the former Chelsea ballboy to open his account for Arsenal.
Chelsea just weren't at the races. Three minutes after his goal Walcott raced down the right and cut the ball back for Baptista inside the box. The Brazilian got there first and then tumbled under a challenge from Lassana Diarra. Referee Howard Webb waved away Arsenal's penalty appeals.
It could have been two or even three-nil at that point. Then, in a flash, it was all square. A minute or so after Philippe Senderos brilliantly blocked Frank Lampard's shot in Chelsea's first attack of note, Drogba latched onto Ballack's lofted pass in the right channel. The Ivorian looked suspiciously offside but his nonchalent finish was all Chelsea cared about.
Arsenal were rocked. Chelsea, sensing their opportunity, pushed forward. Toure made two vital interceptions as Lassana Diarra and Michael Essien made inroads on the right flank. Clearly Chelsea were looking to exploit Armand Traore's inexperience at left back but the Frenchman gave as good as he got. Traore even got forward to pose problems of his own, bundling past two challenges before shooting weakly at Cech after Fabregas had found him with a return pass on the half-hour mark.
After weathering that brief Chelsea storm, Arsenal regrouped. Denilson's outstanding turn left Lampard for dead and a perfect pass set Aliadiere free down the right. Baptista and Diaby raced into the box screaming for a pass but Aliadiere was denied by Ricardo Carvalho as he tried to jink past the Portuguese defender.
The second half was just as pulsating and just as open. Arsenal, as they did in the first half, started strongly. Cech made a tremendous save to deny Diaby after Baptista's pass inside the full back had sent the Frenchman through on goal. Then Fabregas flashed a shot across goal which missed Cech's far post by a matter of inches.
The ebb and flow was halted for six minutes after a sickening injury to John Terry. The England captain stooped for a header inside the Arsenal six-yard box and took a boot in the face. He was knocked unconscious and a worried hush descended on the Millennium Stadium. Thankfully, Terry's condition was not too grave and he regained consciousness after a trip to hospital.
Drogba forced a smart stop from Almunia when play restarted and Wenger made his first change - Eboue for Traore. Shortly afterwards Alexander Hleb replaced Diaby. Those two subs changed the game when they emerged from the bench at Tottenham in the first leg of the Semi-Final. Sadly, they didn't have the same impact on this occasion.
As the clocked ticked down, the game tightened up. Lampard almost gave Chelsea the edge with a thunderous drive which cannoned off the crossbar with 18 minutes left. Then Fabregas picked out Toure from a corner but the Arsenal captain misdirected his header.
With 10 minutes left Wenger played his final card - Adebayor. But it was another centre forward who stole the show as Drogba nodded Robben's left-wing cross firmly past Almunia after getting ahead of Senderos inside the penalty area. Andrei Shevchenko rattled the bar shortly afterwards as Arsenal went for broke.
Seven minutes of injury time were added on, courtesy of Terry's injury and, with time running out, a huge melee broke out after a Mikel's foul on Toure. Red cards followed for Mikel, Adebayor and Toure himself. It was a sorry episode but it shouldn't be allowed to tarnish the memory of a fabulous Cup Final.
And so Arsenal's final visit to the Millennium Stadium ends in defeat - their fourth in 10 trips to Cardiff. With Wembley poised to open its doors, this trip represents the end of an era. But in a losing cause, Wenger's young stars proved that this is also a new dawn for north London's finest.
- Traore 65
- Toure Red Card
- Diaby 69
- Walcott Goal!
- Denilson Yellow Card
- Julio Baptista
- Aliadiere 80
- Eboue 65
- Hleb 69
- Adebayor 80 Red Card
- Carvalho Yellow Card
- Essien Yellow Card
- Diarra Yellow Card
- Makelele 45
- Shevchenko 90
- Drogba Goal! Goal!
- Kalou 90
- Robben 45
- Mikel Red Card