By Chris Harris
Another week, another reason to celebrate. Arsenal Ladies, fresh from last Sunday's European triumph, completed an unprecedented clean sweep of trophies by adding the FA Women's Cup to this season's remarkable haul.
A brace apiece from Kelly Smith and Jayne Ludlow saw off Charlton and offered more conclusive proof that Vic Akers' side are the standard bearers of women's football. A record-breaking crowd at the City Ground will not disagree.
Arsenal fell behind inside two minutes, caught cold by Katie Holtham. But they responded like the champions they are. Smith's delightful free kick and Ludlow's close-range finish turned the Final on its head before the captain hammered home a 30-yard blockbuster in first-half stoppage time. That took the wind out of Charlton's sails and Smith's second-half effort was no more than Arsenal deserved.
This is the eighth time Akers has taken his team to the FA Women's Cup Final and he's left with the prize on every occasion. As the club prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, it might be time to invest in a larger trophy cabinet.
The Ladies manager made one change from the side which started the second leg of the Uefa Cup Final against Umea. Smith returned from suspension and Karen Carney made way. Faye White was also among the substitutes.
If Arsenal were pretty much note-perfect for most of this game, they took a couple of minutes to tune up. By then Charlton already had the lead. Eniola Aluko was given far too much room in the right channel and she raced into the box before arrowing the ball across goal. Holtham - a local girl no less - was on hand to bundle it home at the far post.
Predictably, that stung Arsenal into action. Smith, determined to make an impression after missing the Uefa Cup Final, took matters into her own hands with a powerful run which was ended by Maria Bertelli's unceremonious hack. Smith got her own back in some style, curling the resulting free-kick into the top corner from 25 yards. A supreme strike from a supreme player.
Charlton, who led Arsenal by two goals in their recent league encounter but collapsed to a 9-2 defeat, had seen another precious advantage snuffed out in just three minutes. The champions needed just nine more minutes to get their noses in front.
Charlton had already looked slighty suspect on crosses - Katie Chapman almost profiting from Rachel Yankey's delivery - and they were undone by a simple dead-ball routine. Lianne Sanderson dinked the ball towards the near post and Jayne Ludlow stormed in to force it past Toni-Anne Wayne.
Another Sanderson centre almost brought more reward for Arsenal after 16 minutes. This time Alex Scott ghosted in at the far post but, after a ricochet fell her way, the Uefa Cup matchwinner was denied by a vital block from point-blank range. The message was simple though: Charlton had to sharpen up at the back.
For all that, they did look menacing at the other end. Arsenal kept Umea at bay for three hours in the Uefa Cup Final but looked anything but rock-solid at times today. Aluko, a bundle of energy with pace to burn, buzzed around centre backs Ciara Grant and Anita Asante, and she received willing support from Natasha Dowie.
Dowie herself just failed to get her head on Casey Stoney's teasing cross and Holtham almost bagged her second with a clever flick which sailed over Emma Byrne and just over her crossbar. At that point it was an open, even contest, but as the half wore on the game became more attritional. The chances dried up.
Then, seconds before the half-time whistle, a decisive moment. Ludlow, prowling the midfield, latched onto a loose ball 30 yards out and slammed it first time into the top corner. Wayne never stood a chance. Suddenly, a game which looked in the balance had lurched spectacularly in Arsenal's favour.
The mood in Charlton's dressing room would have been grim in the aftermath of Ludlow's stunner and their plight did not improve. Indeed, the reflexes of Wayne were all that kept them in the match for a while.
Three minutes after the restart Smith's sliding tackle stopped Aluko. The England star found Fleeting and she advanced to the edge of the box before picking out Sanderson in acres of space. Her shot was firm but too close to Wayne, who swatted it away.
Charlton's keeper was kept busy. Yankey's clever reverse pass beat the offside trap and put Fleeting in on goal. The Scotland striker really should have scored but, after taking time to pick her spot, Fleeting's effort was pushed away by Wayne at her near post.
Arsenal were in complete command but, slowly, Charlton re-established themselves in the match. On the hour mark Aluko raced through the centre but her low shot was diverted wide of the post by Byrne's leg. It was an unorthodox save but effective enough. For Charlton it was a rare opportunity and one which should have been snapped up.
Dowie headed the resulting corner from Danielle Murphy off target and Charlton continued to press. Aluko's pace was their main weapon but, after a hesitant start, Asante and Grant were handling the England striker well. When the centre backs were bypassed, Mary Phillip rushed across from left back to boot away Potter's dangerous cross with Aluko waiting to pounce.
Akers made two changes - Carney for Sanderson and Gemma Davison for Fleeting - and Arsenal continued to keep Charlton at arm's length. They could have added to their lead too. A slick passing move ended with an effort on goal from Katie Chapman but a timely block denied the midfielder. Then Davison sprinted clear within seconds of her introduction but dragged her shot wide.
With nine minutes left any remaining doubts were extinguished as Smith found the bottom corner from the edge of the box. Chapman could have added a fifth but Wayne - not for the first time - spared Charlton's blushes with a smart save. As the seconds ticked away Ludlow, chasing a hat-trick, nodded over the bar and then missed an even clearer chance.
The rest was a formality: the final whistle, the familiar scenes of celebration and another trophy to take back to Emirates Stadium. The men have had a barren year but the women have more than made up for it. This season, the Ladies have been simply unstoppable.
Kelly Smith fires in a free kick
Smith scores to make it 1-1
Ludlow slides in at the far post
Ludlow clelebates as we go 2-1 up
Jayne Ludlow scores her second
Kelly Smith makes it 4-1 to Arsenal
Smith roars with delight!
Asante and Ludlow lift the trophy
"We won the Cup!"
The ladies celebrate a clean sweep
Kelly Smith with the trophy
Vic Akers with more silverware
- To buy official Arsenal pictures visit www.ArsenalPics.com.
- Fleeting 76
- Davison 76
- Carney 63