By Rob Kelly at Wembley Stadium
We have become the most successful club in Emirates FA Cup history after lifting the trophy for a record 13th time with a sensational performance at Wembley to beat Chelsea.
In one of the finest finals in recent memory, the Gunners were magnificent to a man – dominating the first half, soaking up pressure in the second, and eventually battling back from a late equaliser to go back up the other end and win it in style.
We made the sort of start you dream about making in an FA Cup final – taking the lead through Alexis after he raced on to a ball that deflected off him and beat Thibaut Courtois.
We came so close to adding the second goal that our performance merited, first through Mesut Ozil and then Danny Welbeck, but we remained in front at the break.
Chelsea came out with renewed energy after the restart, but we soaked up the pressure and went close ourselves through Hector Bellerin.
Diego Costa’s late equaliser was a hammerblow, but this team would not bend, would not be beaten. From the next attack, back we came and Olivier Giroud, just off the bench, brilliantly set up Aaron Ramsey for a diving header to win it.
The final whistle sparked ecstatic scenes from the fans, the players and Arsene Wenger himself. After this most trying of seasons, how satisfying for him to collect his seventh FA Cup – now officially the mnost successful manager in the competition’s history.
What a moment, what a day, what a final.
WENGER’S THREE BIG CALLS
In the days leading up to the final, Wenger had to contend with a series of selection issues that he could surely have done without.
Laurent Koscielny’s suspension was already an unwelcome headache, while Shkodran Mustafi’s failure to recover from illness posed further defensive issues. Throw Kieran Gibbs’ thigh strain into the mix, and it all added up to a problematic build-up for the Gunners.
Per Mertesacker’s return for his first Arsenal start in 13 months was expected, while Nacho Monreal moved into the three-man backline alongside Rob Holding.
Wenger made a big call though, by drafting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in at left-wing back – his seventh different position this season – for the injured Gibbs – and it was by no means the manager’s last.
Another surprise came as David Ospina was preferred to Petr Cech in goal, while Danny Welbeck got the nod to start up front in place of Olivier Giroud as the Gunners went in search of a record 13th FA Cup.
WHAT A START
When you’re underdogs in an FA Cup final, playing against the Premier League champions, you need to make a fast start – and that is exactly what we did.
Right from the off, we snapped into tackles, passed the ball around slickly and seemed to catch Chelsea by surprise with our intensity. It bore all the hallmarks of that 3-0 win against the Blues in September, when a first-half blitz blew Antonio Conte’s side away.
The Arsenal fans were already in raucous mood when the opening goal came in the fifth minute – sparking jubilant scenes from the red half of Wembley.
It came in slightly strange circumstances as Alexis received the ball outside the area, and tried to lift the ball over the Chelsea defence to the onrushing Ramsey. But his pass was blocked, hitting the Chilean before spinning up over the backline.
The offside Ramsey made sure not to touch the ball, and Alexis raced on to the ball before slotting it under Thibaut Courtois and into the bottom corner. The assistant referee immediately raised his flag, but after a brief consulatation referee Anthony Taylor allowed the goal to stand, to the delight of the vociferous Arsenal fans.
GOING CLOSE… TWICE
Now we had our lead, we were determined to build on it – and the sight of three Arsenal players throwing themselves in the way of a Diego Costa shot summed up the fierce commitment we were showing.
This was vintage Arsenal – bright, sharp and determined to leave our mark on this grand occasion.
Twice we came close to doubling our advantage as the Blues wobbled, the first seeing Alexis play Ozil into space in the area and while the German was able to lift his shot past Courtois, Gary Cahill cleared off the line.
The next was even closer, as Welbeck rose highest to meet a corner from the right and his glancing header struck the far post, before hitting Ramsey on the follow up before the ball went out.
Still we came at Chelsea, with Welbeck again going close before the half-hour mark and Xhaka’s half volley testing Courtois from distance.
There was no more drama before the interval – but we had seen enough in a fantastic first 45 minutes. Phew.
SOAKING UP THE PRESSURE
A big response was expected from Chelsea, and it soon arrived - with David Ospina twice called into action in the opening exchanges, the first to hold a deflected N’Golo Kante shot and the second to brilliantly palm away Victor Moses’ stinging effort.
But with Conte’s side pushing forward, it offered up chances on the counter and we soon had a good opportunity when Alexis played Bellerin through but his cross towards the onrushing Ramsey was cut out by Courtois.
Chelsea continued to push on though, and Pedro had our hearts in our mouths when he received the ball on the edge of the area and curled a shot inches beyond the far post.
The hour mark came and went with everything going to plan – although we were having to soak up more pressure than at any point in the first half.
BACK ON TOP
We may have been sitting deeper than before, but we remained a real attacking threat – spearheaded by the excellent Welbeck.
The Blues backline could not keep the effervescent England international quiet, and when our next chance came, it was no surprise that he was at the heart of it.
Welbeck received the ball on the left, cut inside and waited for runners into the box. Ramsey duly obliged, but the pass was deflected into the path of Bellerin, whose first-time effort was well held by Courtois.
The next twist was only just around the corner though, as Moses cut into the box and went down under a challenge by Oxlade-Chamberlain. Penalty? No, the Chelsea man was booked – for the second time on the day – and received his marching orders.
THE BLUES BITE BACK… BUT NOT FOR LONG
Just when it looked like it was going all our way, Chelsea hit back to level matters through Costa.
It was frustrating for the Gunners, who had defended to well until that point but they could do nothing as the ball fell to the Spain international in the area and he prodded the ball into the bottom corner.
Now we had a test of character – how would we respond?
Brilliantly it turned out. On came Giroud for Welbeck, and with his first run he raced on to a ball up the left and cut a superb ball back across goal from the byeline.
Ramsey – famously the matchwinner in 2014 – was charging into the box and he sent a diving header into the bottom corner, right in front of the Arsenal fans who almost lifted the roof off the stadium.
Bellerin came within inches of adding a third with six minutes after bursting through the heart of the Blues defence, but his low shot whistled just wide.
Ospina was called upon moments later to make a stunning save to deny Costa inside the area as the champions searched for an equaliser.
From the next attack, Ozil had the chance to win it after racing clean though – but agonisingly his shot hit the post from eight yards out.
But it didn't matter - the whistle soon blew and we had won the FA Cup for a record 13th time. And what a way to do it.
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