By Rob Kelly at Wembley Stadium
Arsenal won a record 12th FA Cup with a performance of such vibrance and effervescence that Aston Villa simply could not live with them on a remarkable day at Wembley.
Drama is almost stitched into the very fabric of this competition, but the Gunners were simply too good, too dominant to allow any element of doubt to creep in here.
This was ‘Wengerball’ distilled - slick, incisive passing, exceptional off the ball movement and a couple of goals so good they should almost have come with an X-rated warning.
Some 379 days after that unforgettable, nerve-shredding final against Hull City, this could not have been more different.
Arsène Wenger’s side - resplendent in yellow - were in total control from the off. So edgy on their recent visits to the national stadium, this time they were the picture of calm.
Walcott was the hero, latching on to a cushioned Alexis header to slam the ball in at the near post before spinning away to celebrate with the ecstatic Arsenal fans.
Better was to come after the break, with Alexis scoring the sort of 25-yard screamer that would surely have had Charlie George - the hero of 1971 - nodding in appreciation.
The final whistle brought scenes of unconfined joy as Wenger joined George Ramsay on six FA Cup wins, while the Gunners’ emphatic victory put them out on their own on with a record 12 triumphs.
Arsenal are England’s cup kings - and what a performance they delivered to do it.
SETTING THE SCENE
Much of the build-up to the final had focused on the relative absence of pressure compared to this time last year. Then the weight of history - and that nine-year wait for a trophy - had been almost overwhelming. This time there was a sense of serenity around the Arsenal squad.
The main selection issues centred on two positions: goalkeeper and central striker. Wojciech Szczesny, as this season’s cup keeper, unsurprisingly claimed the gloves but the big news prior to kick off was the selection of Walcott in place of Giroud up front.
Wenger had spoken of how his decision would be based on which player had the necessary weapons to inflict the most damage, and Walcott’s hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion the previous week could barely have been better timed.
It perfectly illustrated the impact his fresh legs and searing pace could have at Wembley.
It was certainly tough on Giroud, who had scored seven and assisted four goals in his 13 FA Cup appearances and had three in his last three against Tim Sherwood’s side. But with a record 12th FA Cup on the line, there was no room for sentiment in the Arsenal manager’s thinking.
Villa, meanwhile, had undergone a huge transformation since Sherwood’s arrival in February. The former Tottenham manager had steered the club to safety, while adding confidence and goals to a team that had previously lacked both - and in Christian Benteke they had a striker who could hurt any backline.
The main Villa team news surrounded the inclusion of Shay Given in goal for his first FA Cup final appearance since 1998, when his Newcastle side were beaten by Arsenal for Wenger’s first Double.
In stark contrast to last year’s final, Arsenal started firmly on the front foot, pinning Villa back into their own half with their incisive, piercing passing.
Santi Cazorla was at the heart of it, constantly demanding the ball from his team-mates before buying space by sucking in opponents and then playing through the lines.
The Spanish playmaker was predictably involved in the first chance of the match, finding Alexis in the area with a clever pass before the Chilean picked out Koscielny. The centre back’s close-range header was true, but Given was able to palm it away acrobatically.
It was all Arsenal, the yellow hordes bursting forward at will and Ramsey twice went close within the space of three minutes - firstly poking wide at the near post before crashing a drive over the bar.
A goal was in the air, and with 24 minutes on the clock we so nearly had one.
The chance arrived from a familiar source, with Cazorla finding Mesut Ozil in the area with a wonderfully-disguised pass and the German immediately crossed to the waiting Walcott. The forward got firm contact to send his shot goalbound, but Kieran Richardson dived in with a wonderful block to deny him.
Arsenal were in complete control, but the longer the game remained goalless the more the tension ratcheted up.
But with five minutes remaining of a one-sided half, Arsenal finally made their dominance count.
The goal came as Nacho Monreal was released down the left flank and he curled in a fine cross from the byeline to the waiting Alexis in the area. It was too high for the Chilean to head at goal, so he cleverly cushioned the ball down to the lurking Walcott who slammed beyond Given to spark joyous scenes.
It was the perfect way to end a near-perfect first-half display.
The second half got off to a pretty perfect start too, with Alexis scoring a goal that is destined to be replayed again and again.
Initially it appeared as though little was on when the Chilean international collected the ball 30 yards from the Villa goal. But after a debut season in which he has constantly thrilled with the pure audacity of his play, we should have known better.
Alexis took a brief look up, weighed his options and then hit a shot of such venom that it was still picking up speed as it hit the roof of the net.
It seemed to catch Wembley cold for a second, before the yellow end exploded in joy. He has scored many Goal of the Season contenders, but that one was arguably his best.
It put Arsenal even further in the ascendency, and only a smart Given save from Cazorla minutes later prevented them adding more gloss to the scoreline.
However, five minutes later they had their third, this time in more prosaic fashion. Cazorla whipped in a corner from the right, where Mertesacker was waiting unmarked to head - via his shoulder - beyond Given.
It was no more than the team’s exceptional display deserved.
Still Arsenal came, hungry for more goals, with Walcott curling one effort just wide before making way, to a standing ovation, for Giroud.
It was party time in the Arsenal end, the yellow morass of fans bouncing along as they worked through their entire repertoire of songs.
There was still time for Giroud to convert at the near post for a fourth, before the the final whistle brought another explosion of joy.
The FA Cup trophy lift - the club’s second in 12 months - that was to follow soon afterwards was as sweet as the 11 that had come before it.
What a day, and what a performance.
- Mertesacker (C) Goal!
- Alexis 89 Goal!
- Ozil 77
- Walcott 77 Goal!
- Oxlade-Chamberlain 89
- Giroud 77 Goal!
- Wilshere 77
- Richardson 68
- Hutton Yellow Card
- Westwood 70 Yellow Card
- Delph Yellow Card
- Cleverley (C) Yellow Card
- N'Zogbia 52
- Bacuna 68
- Agbonlahor 52 Yellow Card
- Sanchez 70