SEVENTY-one days after Arsenal defeated Chelsea to win FA Cup final at Wembley they were at it again with a performance that again displayed a combination of resilience and ruthlessness. Having fallen behind to Victor Moses’s 46th-minute goal, Arsenal could quite easily have crumbled against opponents who for so long had caused them grief but instead they kept going and, as was the case in May, found a way back via Saed Kolasinac’s late equaliser.
That took the match into penalties and, via the new Fifa-approved ABBA system, Arsenal triumphed 4-1 with their collective joy erupting after Olivier Giroud rammed the decisive spot-kick past Thibaut Courtois.
The mood among those in blue was, not surprisingly, one of glumness, with no one in the champions’ ranks looking more sick at the outcome than Antonio Conte. This has been a tetchy and difficult summer for the Italian and, while he can take heart from how his players performed for large spells of what was a fiery friendly – including four bookings and one red card – he is well aware that Chelsea have in the past reacted to a title triumph with a backward step.
Alexis Sánchez scored after only four minutes when these sides met in the FA Cup final. There was no chance of the Chilean repeating that feat for, though he was at Wembley, he was not part of Arsenal’s matchday squad. This was no great surprise given he returned to training only last Tuesday following a combination of being involved in the Confederations Cup and struggling with illness.
It was impossible, however, not to read more into Sánchez’s non-involvement given the persistent talk surrounding his future but, if there was indeed more to it, then his team-mates did not initially appear affected. As was the case in May, it was Wenger’s side who began the contest with greater desire and intent.
Lined-up again in a 3-4-2-1 formation, those in red and white pressed Chelsea back and used possession quickly and efficiently, opening up their opponents as early as the sixth minute when Alex Iwobi drove into the area and delivered a cross that caused minor panic among those in blue. A minute later Danny Welbeck forced Courtois into a save and the Belgian was required to act again shortly after, this time keeping out Iwobi’s close-range shot following good link-up play with Mohamed Elneny.
Chelsea were being suffocated and it did not help the champions’ cause that, when they were given the time and space to make an impact on proceedings, their approach play was sloppy and inaccurate, with Michy Batshuayi an almost non-existent presence as their lone centre-forward.
Watching on from the bench, Álvaro Morata must have sensed he would be called on sooner rather than later to make his first appearance for Chelsea in this country following his £58m arrival from Real Madrid.
Two minutes later Arsenal had their best chance of the match to that point, when their own costly new forward, Alexandre Lacazette. hit a post with a curling drive after swift build-up play involving Bellerin and Welbeck and it seemed only a matter of time before the FA Cup holders would open the scoring. Conte certainly appeared wary of the possibility, cutting a deeply agitated figure on the touchline.
Perhaps alerted by their manager’s frustrations, Chelsea began to show some authority and twice in quick succession forced Petr Cech into reaction saves, first to keep out Moses and then a stinging drive from Pedro, who was playing in a mask having being involved in a collision with David Ospina during the champions’ 3-0 friendly win against Arsenal in Beijing last month.
Chelsea continued to push forward and on 37 minutes felt they deserved a penalty after Willian went down inside the area after a challenge from Bellerin. The referee, Bobby Madley, thought otherwise and instead booked the Brazilian for diving, a harsh decision given Bellerin’s knee clearly made contact with Willian’s left leg as he surged into the area.
Those in Chelsea’s dugout were indignant, no one more so than Conte, but he and his players’ mood changed a minute after the break when Moses struck.
The goal came after Kolasinac, on as a 32nd-minute substitute for Per Mertesacker after he sustained a nasty cut above his right eye following a clash with Gary Cahill, failed fully to clear a right-sided corner. Cahill dropped the ball back into space inside Arsenal’s area with a deft header and Moses did the rest, running from an onside position before lashing an unstoppable drive past Cech.
It was poor defending from Arsenal, with Mertesacker’s absence a likely contributing factor. Credit should be given to Wenger’s side, however, for not collapsing and instead pushing forward aggressively in search of an equaliser. Elneny tested Courtois with a fiercely hit cross-come-shot before Welbeck forced David Luiz into a last-ditch tackle.
Soon after the hour Wenger made a double substitution, bringing Giroud and Theo Walcott on for Lacazette and Iwobi, before Conte made his own eye-catching change on 73 minutes, bringing Morata on for Batshuayi. And the Spaniard had an almost immediate effort on goal – a near-post shot that sailed harmlessly over the bar.
The turning point came on 80 minutes. Pedro was sent off after catching Elneny, on the achilles with a studs-up tackle and from the resulting free-kick, taken by Granit Xhaka, Kolasniac equalised with a close-range downward header after drifting unmarked into space. Cue penalties.
Gary Cahill scored for Chelsea before Theo Walcott did the same for Arsenal. Nacho Monreal made it 2-1 for the FA Cup holders before the surprising appearance of Courtois as the next taker. He thrashed his drive over the bar, becoming the second goalkeeper to miss a penalty in the Community Shield after David Seaman, and when Morata also missed with a low drive that clipped the post, the writing was on the wall. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made it 3-1 to Arsenal and Giroud did the rest. – theguardian.com