By Chris Harris
Arsenal's hopes of a domestic clean sweep bit the dust on Sunday as two cool finishes from Eniola Aluko won the League Cup for Charlton and denied Vic Akers' side a ninth triumph in the competition.
Aluko latched onto Casey Stoney's lofted pass, nodded the ball past Mary Phillip and executed a perfect lob over Emma Byrne to give Charlton the lead after 28 minutes. It was a goal to marvel at, albeit against the run of play.
Arsenal raised the tempo but the real hammerblow arrived deep into first-half stoppage time. Sarah-Jane Snare robbed Alex Scott as she dallied in possession, a precise pass put Aluko through again and this time she found the bottom corner.
The holders huffed and puffed in the second half and Julie Fleeting scored with 14 minutes left to set up a grandstand finish. However, their late onslaught was in vain.
Charlton held on to avenge their defeat in last season's Final, but Arsenal have a chance to make amends when the London rivals go head to head in the FA Cup and the Premier League before the end of the season.
In the build-up to this game Akers noted the importance of a "good start". Arsenal certainly looked more threatening in the opening exchanges with Kelly Smith at the hub of their better moves.
The England star was denied an early goal by two last-ditch challenges. After six minutes, Julie Fleeting capitalised on sloppy defending to square the ball to Ludlow. She found Smith but Katie Chapman's well-timed tackle smothered the England star's shot. Smith wreaked havoc with a mazy run three minutes later but once again she was closed down in the nick of time.
Arsenal's best chance of the half came and went after quarter-of-an-hour. Lianne Sanderson turned sharply on the halfway line, spotted Ludlow's marauding run and played her through with a beautifully-weighted pass. The Wales international might have picked out Fleeting at the far post but instead sliced a shot high and wide of the near post.
Charlton's only effort of note by this stage was Jo Potter's powerful but inaccurate effort from long range. However, that seemed irrelevant when Aluko outpaced the Arsenal defence to score in style just before the half-hour mark.
Stung by the goal, Arsenal tried to raise the tempo. Smith, inevitably, looked the most likely to level matters. In one run she jinked past four Charlton defenders and was cynically chopped down on the edge of the area. Smith attempted to extract maximum punishment from the free-kick but could only shoot low into the wall.
After 37 minutes Sanderson found space in the Charlton area. She fired in a powerful shot but Pauline Cope got well behind it and parried the ball to safety. Then Yankey fired a dipping volley just over the crossbar.
The pressure was mounting on Charlton but, deep into first-half stoppage time, they snatched a second. Scott dawdled on the ball and lost possession, Snare found Aluko in the right-hand channel and she gave Byrne no chance.
That knocked the stuffing out of Akers' team. They looked flat at the start of the second period and, if anything, Charlton could have stretched their lead before the hour mark. Amanda Barr met Potter's cross with a venomous volley which flew just wide of the post. Then Stoney saw Byrne off her line and fired a 30-yard effort just over the bar.
Gradually, Arsenal regained their momentum. Fleeting miscued a shot into Yankey's path but she couldn't keep her volley down. Then Cope saved well as Fleeting got her head to Yvonne Tracy's excellent cross.
Smith found a way through the well-drilled Charlton defence with 20 minutes left but Karen Hills' challenge was enough to put her off and Cope was able to gather the ball again.
However, the Charlton goalkeeper was given no chance when Ludlow picked out Fleeting in the penalty area six minutes later. The Scotland striker fired low past Cope to register a goal in successive League Cup Finals.
It was the lifeline Arsenal needed and set up a barnstorming finish. Michelle Hickmott made a vital intervention as Sanderson raced onto a lofted pass and Fleeting had a loud appeal for a penalty turned down.
Try as they might, Arsenal could not find an equaliser. But the Double is still on.
Yankey gets away from Hickmott
Smith tangles with Chapman
Julie Fleeting lets fly
Fleeting nets our late consolation
- To buy official Arsenal pictures visit www.ArsenalPics.com.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.