By Rob Kelly at Wembley Stadium
Arsenal reached the Emirates FA Cup final after a hugely-dramatic clash with Manchester City at Wembley Stadium.
This was a victory built as much on character and heart as anything else – and the Gunners deserved everything they got.
The first half was a tight, tense affair with little between the two teams – and chances at a premium – although both teams had goals disallowed.
But after the restart the game sparked into life, with Arsene Wenger’s men soon taking charge, only to fall behind when Sergio Aguero scored a suckerpunch of a goal on the counter.
But the Gunners did not let their heads drop, and they had their reward with 19 minutes remaining when Nacho Monreal stole in at the far post to slam home a superb Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain cross.
Momentum was shifting back and forth almost by the minute, with City seeing two efforts hit the woodwork – the first by Yaya Toure, the second as Fernandinho’s struck the bar – while Danny Welbeck also went close.
There was to be no further breakthrough in regulation time, and the game went to an additional half-hour.
Rob Holding – magnificent all afternoon – came so close to putting his side in front but headed just over from close range, before Arsenal sparked jubilant scenes as they grabbed what turned out to be the winner.
It wasn’t pretty, it was downright scrappy – but no one of an Arsenal persuasion cared a jot as Alexis reacted quickest to a loose ball from a corner to poke home from close range.
What a performance. What a cup tie.
Bring on May 27 and yet another Emirates FA Cup final.
THREE AT THE BACK AGAIN
Arsene Wenger had spent much of the build-up explaining his thinking behind playing three at the back for the first time since 1997 in Monday night’s win at Middlesbrough.
As it turned out, it was a dry run for this game as the Arsenal manager kept the faith in his rejigged defence, meaning Rob Holding started once more in surely the biggest test of his career to date.
The England Under-21 international – making just his 12th appearance in Arsenal colours – was partnered by Gabriel and captain Laurent Koscielny in a backline designed to add stability to a team that had previously been leaking goals.
It meant Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s eye-catching performance at right wing-back at the Riverside saw him rewarded with another opportunity to impress, while Monreal continued on the opposite flank.
The only change to the matchday squad saw Welbeck take his place on the bench after recovering sufficiently from a toe injury, with Mohamed Elneny dropping out.
Having seen Chelsea progress to the final 24 hours earlier after a 4-2 win against Tottenham, pundits were predicting that we could be in for another goal-packed afternoon at Wembley Stadium.
But with only one of our previous 12 FA Cup semi-finals having been won by more than one goal, the stats suggested we were in for a much tighter game than that.
CITY ON THE FRONT FOOT
Pep Guardiola’s side made much of the early running, stroking the ball around as they sought to test our new-look system.
Kevin De Bruyne dragged one shot wide, but for all City’s possession they could not find a chink in the Arsenal armoury as the three-man backline stood up well to the challenge.
When the first clear-cut opportunity came, it was for the team in red as Oxlade-Chamberlain did well to buy himself some space down the right and stood up a fine cross to Giroud, but his header was straight at Claudio Bravo.
City came straight back at us, with Petr Cech forced to tip a close-range David Silva header over the bar, before Gael Clichy sent a shot high and wide from the edge of the box soon after.
OFFICIALS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The game had been free of any controversy, but soon the officials were in the spotlight as Koscielny poked the ball in beyond Bravo – but was flagged offside.
It may have disappointed the Arsenal fans, but replays showed it was the correct call – as was referee Craig Pawson’s decision to wave play on when Raheem Sterling went down in the box after a tangle of legs with Oxlade-Chamberlain.
City weren’t happy with the call, which was possibly exacerbated by the referee’s decision earlier in the game not to allow Silva to receive treatment on the pitch after a Gabriel challenge, which eventually led to the City making way for Sterling.
City were next to have a goal disallowed, as Sane raced on to a through ball and chipped the ball back across goal from the left byeline, which was knocked back in by Aguero only to be saved by Cech. Sterling knocked the loose ball home, but the flag was up – much to our relief.
Replays highlighted that Sane’s cross may – or may not, depending on whether you’re red or blue – have gone out of play, but no one in an Arsenal shirt was going to dispute it at the end of a fiercely-contested first half.
A CHANGE IN MOMENTUM
Having sat back for much of the first half, Wenger’s side were much brighter after the restart – and worked the first opportunity when Alexis picked out Granit Xhaka from a free kick.
The Swiss international was unmarked on the edge of the area, but didn’t get enough on his first-time shot and City were able to scramble it clear.
With Bravo looking uncomfortable at times – one slip in particular nearly let Alexis in – the Gunners were quickly rising in confidence, with Oxlade-Chamberlain particularly threatening.
This was much more like it from Arsenal.
A SUCKERPUNCH FROM CITY
Just as we were starting to take control, City broke on the counter after we lost possession just outside the area.
Yaya Toure fed the ball through to Aguero, who beat Monreal to the ball and dinked the ball over the onrushing Cech to give Guardiola’s side the lead.
It was a big blow to the Gunners, who had been growing in confidence – now they would have to dig deep to find a way back into the game.
THE PERFECT RESPONSE
Wenger’s side deserved more than to be a goal down – and they knew it, racing back at their opponents and continuing to pass the ball around calmly and searching for chances.
With 71 minutes that opportunity came, as Oxlade-Chamberlain – in such fine form – found space on the right and curled a delicious ball to the far post.
Monreal came racing in and, with his wrong foot, met it on the half volley and drilled it beyond Bravo in for the equaliser.
The goal sparked joyous scenes in front of the Arsenal fans, who soon started doing ‘the Poznan’ in celebration.
END TO END
Having been stung by Monreal’s equaliser, Guardiola’s side started to attack with more ambition as the game entered its closing stages.
The Gunners were indebted to Cech with 10 minutes remaining when he reacted quickly to push Toure’s fine volley on to the inside of the post, before the ball rolled clear.
It was Arsenal’s turn to attack next as Ozil went clear, only to be dispossessed in the area before City came roaring back again as Fernandinho sent a fierce header against the crossbar from a corner.
With four minutes remaining, Welbeck – on for Giroud – pulled into space on the right, beat Nicolas Otamendi to get into the area and had a golden chance to win it, but curled his shot wide of the far post.
It was a huge chance – but there were to be no more as the game went to extra-time, our third in an FA Cup semi-final in a row.
The first half of extra time started cagily, but soon the Gunners were back on the front foot – and were so close to taking the lead when Holding headed just over the bar from close range.
It was a big chance for the young centre back, who had performed so well throughout a frenetic cup tie, showing real composure on one of the biggest stages of all.
Five minutes later, our attacking ambition was rewarded when, from a corner Koscielny headed it back across goal, Welbeck took a swing and missed only for Alexis to poke in at the near post.
It was no more than we deserved, and the roof nearly lifted off the red half of Wembley Stadium as the Chilean raced away to celebrate.
The Arsenal nearly had even more to celebrate just before the interval when Ozil picked out Welbeck at the far post but the England international glanced wide from close range.
City substitutes Fabian Delph and Kelechi Iheanacho but spurned big chances for City as they desperately sought a way back into the game after the interval in extra-time – but still the Gunners held firm.
That was it as Wenger’s men held on to seal their place back at Wembley Stadium on May 27 for yet another Emirates FA Cup final.
Referee: Craig Pawson
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