By Chris Harris at Wembley
Arsenal must look to Europe for their final chance of silverware this season after their FA Cup hopes were dashed by Chelsea at Wembley.
Theo Walcott fired Arsenal ahead after 18 minutes, just as he had when these sides met in the Carling Cup Final two years ago.
Unfortunately, history continued to repeat itself as Chelsea came from behind to win. Florent Malouda levelled matters just after the half-hour and Didier Drogba, the matchwinner in Cardiff in 2007, scored the decisive goal with six minutes left.
Chelsea will be back here on May 30 to contest the FA Cup Final. Arsenal, meanwhile, will pin their hopes on the Champions League. That two-legged Semi-Final against Manchester United now takes on even greater significance.
Arsene Wenger’s major concern ahead of the game centred around his back four and, more specifically, whether he would actually have a quartet of fit defenders. In the event Kieran Gibbs passed a late fitness test on a groin problem to take his place at left back while Emmanuel Eboue continued to deputise for Bacary Sagna, still suffering from a virus.
The manager sprang a surprise further forward. Andrey Arshavin, whom many expected to start, was among the substitutes as Wenger opted to stiffen his midfield with Denilson and Abou Diaby. Alex Song and Samir Nasri, both starters in midweek, also dropped to the bench.
Considering they contested four of the six FA Cup Finals held at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium while the new Wembley was under construction, it’s something of a surprise that it has taken Arsenal almost three years to grace this venue. Fans of Doncaster, Yeovil, Luton, Rochdale and Scunthorpe already have a Wembley appearance under their belts but Arsenal’s red-and-white hoards made up for lost time with colourful, noisy support from their end of the stadium.
Wenger’s side may have waited a while to play here but they wasted no time in imposing themselves on the game. Walcott enjoyed a couple of threatening runs down the right as Chelsea were forced back from the first whistle.
For all that, Arsenal nearly trailed as early as the fourth minute. Lukasz Fabianski raced out of his box to deal with a long diagonal ball in behind his back four but was beaten in the air by Drogba. Gibbs scurried back to clear off the line, much as he did at Wigan a week ago.
Before the match Wenger had aired his concerns about the Wembley pitch, perceived to be a pale imitation of it predecessor’s hallowed turf. The Frenchman had a point - the surface was uneven, prone to bobbles and and did nothing to help either side’s passing game.
Indeed, one uneasy pass almost cost the Gunners dearly. Frank Lampard intercepted Denilson’s tentative prod and found Drogba racing through the left channel. Fabianski plucked his low cross out of the air.
For all their possession Arsenal had not extended the Pole’s opposite number by this point, but after 18 minutes they found the breakthrough. Emmanuel Adebayor’s clever pass from the left touchline picked out Gibbs’ run into the box and Walcott met his deep cross with a first-time effort which found the corner via Ashley Cole’s hand and Petr Cech’s fingertips.
The goal settled any remaining Arsenal nerves on and off the pitch but their lead would last just 14 minutes. Once again a deep crossfield ball caused problems and this time Malouda took advantage, cutting inside Eboue and firing low inside Fabianski’s near post.
Four minutes later it almost got a lot worse. Diaby was caught in possession inside his own box and Nicolas Anelka fizzed a low shot against the Fabianski’s far post.
Chelsea scented blood; Arsenal looked nervy. They needed to regroup and, in truth, the half-time whistle was a welcome one.
The break seemed to do the Gunners good. Within minutes of the restart Adebayor had lashed a presentable chance wide and then almost got on the end of a teasing delivery from Van Persie.
Kolo Toure’s vital challenge denied Lampard a gilt-edged chance at the other end but the momentum was with Arsenal and Van Persie twice went close just after the hour mark. First the Dutchman was inches away from converting a Walcott cross, then he lashed a shot just over the angle from the edge of the box.
That was pretty much Van Persie’s last meaningful action; Arshavin replaced him with 15 minutes left. Nicklas Bendtner replaced Adebayor five minutes later. But before either had a chance to influence the game, Chelsea were ahead. Lampard's long ball over the top sent Drogba clear and he side-stepped the onrushing Fabianski before sliding the ball into an empty net.
It was a sickening way to succumb after Arsenal had enjoyed their fair share of the possession and the chances. But, one Arshavin snap-shot aside, they could not respond as Chelsea closed the game out.
This hurt, but the season is not over. Man United and Barcelona will beg to differ but Arsenal could yet have their revenge on Chelsea - in the Champions League Final.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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