Chelsea’s problems with playing Arsenal in FA Cup finals continues as despite taking an early lead through Christian Pulisic in today’s showpiece at an empty Wembley, a penalty conceded before half-time and a second-half winner, both scored by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, consigned our drawn-out domestic season to a disappointing end.
Despite our overall excellence in this competition since this millennium began (this was our ninth final since 2000 and we have won six of them), the one side that has beaten us when we have reached the final is our north London rivals. Frank Lampard played his first final against them in 2002 and that was his only defeat at this stage, and it has happened again in his first as manager. He went on to win four FA Cups as a player. Here’s hoping for a similar turnaround again.
It was a lovely Chelsea goal that opened the scoring. Pulisic’s 11 of his first season in England appeared to give Lampard’s side the perfect start but we did not take the grip on the encounter that opening offered.
Arsenal, who had just had a goal disallowed for offside, equalised shortly before the half-hour was up. Aubameyang, who had been fouled by Cesar Azpilicueta, scored a penalty and for the rest of the first half the Gunners were the side on top.
There was a blow for the Blues when we lost Pulisic to injury at the start of the second half and from then on the game did not go our way, with man-of-the-match Aubameyang finishing off a counter-attack and then Mateo Kovacic being harshly sent-off. We had earlier lost Azpilicueta to injury as well to make the job even harder and there was no way back for the Blues, who also suffered an injury to substitute Pedro in the closing moments.
Blues strike first
As everyone knows, this Heads Up FA Cup final (the match this year dedicated to awareness of mental health) was a final with a difference, the first in the competition’s venerable history to be played behind closed doors, but some touches remained the same, including Abide With Me, the Cup final hymn, before kick-off, albeit a pre-recorded version sung on the stadium roof.
Chelsea could have been behind three minutes from the start had Aubameyang been on target with his near-post header from an Ainsley Maitland-Niles cross, but we responded quickly and it needed a diving save from Emiliano Martinez to prevent Mason Mount hitting the net in which he had scored in the semi-final with a shot from similar distance.
It took only another couple of minutes for the Blues to take the lead with a beautifully crafted goal. Mount was involved again, taking a pass from the eventual scorer Pulisic and slotting inside to Giroud. The centre-forward’s way to goal was blocked but instead he found the inspiration to lay the ball back beautifully. Pulisic took it on past Hector Bellerin and finished with a perfect and delicate chip. There were just five minutes played.
Five minutes later, the American looked to be going it alone for a second goal but after beating two men his shot was saved.
Mateo Kovacic earned the final’s first yellow card for sliding in on Granit Xhaka. The Croatian then gave away a free-kick closer to the Chelsea goal but Dani Ceballos left Caballero unconcerned as he fired over the bar.
Despite that opportunity for Arsenal we reached the first drinks break feeling comfortable. Our opponents had only truly threatened with that earlier header and although chances had been scarce at the other end as well, we were one goal to the good.
Gunners gain a foothold
The minutes that followed that interval were very different from before it. Firstly Arsenal had the ball in the Chelsea net from a crisp strike by Nicolas Pepe. It appeared the Gunners had worked the move well, but the flag was up for offside when an initial ball was played up to Aubameyang. VAR confirmed the decision to disallow the goal.
Moments later however, a good Arsenal pass from the back sent Aubameyang away behind the Chelsea defence and onside this time. Azpilicueta gave chase but was judged to have fouled the Arsenal skipper as he entered the box and a penalty was awarded. That was also checked but this time VAR did not go our way. Aubameyang slotted the spot-kick. 1-1 with 28 minutes played.
We lost our captain to injury shortly after that. It had been a troubled game up to that point for Azpi against the pace Arsenal had on that side of the pitch and now he limped off with a hamstring pull. His replacement was Andreas Christensen.
Arsenal had grown into the game and caused the Blues problems with their crosses for the rest of the half. There was some shaky defending at our end but the most presentable chance in open play since the equaliser and before half-time was Chelsea’s. Alonso skied a shot from the edge of the area after Mount had laid the ball back.
At the other end there was relief when Lacazette missed the target with a free-kick on the very edge of the area.
Mount joined Kovacic and Azpilicueta in the book just before half-time.
It slips away in the second half
There was drama at the very start of the second period when a Giroud lay-off set Pulisic away from the halfway line. He went all the way to the penalty area but at the moment he shot, his hamstring went, the ball went wide and the American’s impressive first season at Chelsea was over.
His misfortune however meant there was a chance for Pedro to bring the curtain down in style on his Chelsea career, although sadly that would not be the case.
The game went through a short lull as both sides wrestled for some control, the midfield was congested throughout this game, but then it sprang to life when a Jorginho ball over the top was just inches away from dropping for Mount and then Alonso did well to block an Aubameyang shot.
However midway through the second half the Gabon striker gave Arsenal the lead with a finish similar to Pulisic’s opener. Initially Christensen had done well to prevent Bellerin going through from the back with a well-timed sliding tackle but while both those players remained down, the ball broke the north Londoners’ way. They worked it to Aubameyang on the left of the area who stepped outside Zouma and floated his finish over Caballero.
Our Cup final prospects took another blow soon after when Kovacic was booked for a second time and was therefore sent-off. It was hugely debatable whether his contact with Xhaka’s foot warranted a yellow. In 2017 against Arsenal we lost Victor Moses to a red card. That game finished 2-1 as well.
Another question was whether the Arsenal keeper later handled the ball outside of his penalty area when claiming a ball during the second half. He went unpenalised.
Lampard made three substitutions to the side in an attempt to bring fresh energy and ideas, the defence switching to a back-four, but the Gunners held firm. There was the sad sight of Pedro on a stretcher right at the end with a shoulder injury after his run to goal had been ended with a tumble.
Fifty years after Chelsea’s first ever triumph in the FA Cup, we were not able to add number nine.
After the quality performance Chelsea put in last Sunday to secure a top-four position in the Premier League, it was no surprise to see Lampard name an unchanged side today. N’Golo Kante, over his hamstring strain, was on the bench but Willian, who had fought hard to be fit in time following Achilles difficulties, had to drop out of the squad in the 24 hours leading up to this game. Arsenal too lined up as most expected.
The domestic season reached its end today but next weekend, after a gap of over five months since the first leg, we finally complete our Champions League Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich. Needless to say Chelsea have plenty to do in the away leg to make it through to the quarter-finals. We are 3-0 down after the first leg at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea (3-4-3): Caballero; Azpilicueta (c) (Christensen 35), Zouma, Rudiger (Hudson-Odoi 78); James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Alonso; Mount (Barkley 78), Giroud (Abraham 78), Pulisic (Pedro 49).
Unused subs Kepa, Tomori, Emerson, Kante.
Scorer Pulisic 6
Sent-off Kovacic 73
Booked Kovacic 14, Azpilicueta 26, Mount 45+4, Rudiger 75, Barkley 89
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Martinez; Holding, David Luiz (Sokratis 88), Tierney (Kolasinac 90+12; Bellerin, Ceballos, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles; Pepe, Aubameyang (c); Lacazette (Nketiah 81).
Unused subs Macey, Willock, Smith, Torreira, Nelson, Saka.
Scorer Aubameyang 28 pen, 68
Booked Ceballos 73
Referee Anthony Taylor