Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang netted a matchwinning brace for the second successive FA Cup tie, as Arsenal edged out a nervy 2-1 win over London rivals Chelsea – earning a record 14th title in competition history while subsequently qualifying for UEFA Europa League football next season with Mikel Arteta’s first piece of silverware in management.
No-one expected this. After the Gunners limped to their worst Premier League finish since 1994-95, criticism and ridicule aplenty was levelled at a dwindling football giant.
Yet on Saturday evening, they rejoiced on the Wembley pitch while fourth-placed Chelsea – heavy favourites to win here – watched on painfully across the turf after a 2-1 defeat.
Perspective needed after morale-boosting victory
With Mesut Özil given permission to travel to Turkey and Matteo Guendouzi still exiled, storylines that should be resolved this summer bubbled under the surface pre-match.
Instead, it was the central midfield tandem of Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka, alongside Ainsley Maitland-Niles flying forward on their left-hand side, which caught the eye.
All three players’ futures have been up in the air at separate times this season.
Ceballos struggled during large periods of his existing loan spell, yet ends the season with supporters itching for an extension or permanent deal under new management.
Xhaka was booed off during their 2-2 draw with Crystal Palace in late October, stripped of the captaincy and expected to make a Bundesliga return during the winter window.
Maitland-Niles has also been linked with a summer departure, as Brighton are among clubs monitoring his situation – said to be unhappy with limited minutes and stagnation.
So with that in mind, it was refreshing to see them all heavily involved in different roles against a Chelsea side that themselves still need work.
Chelsea’s defensive deficiencies persist
£49m signing Timo Werner watched on from the stands here, but it’s become increasingly apparent they need more than just fresh firepower next season.
Cesar Azpilicueta’s evening was cut short after a first-half hamstring injury and you could sense the captain’s annoyance.
It was his indecisiveness that allowed Aubameyang an opportunity to burst into the box, before bundling him to the turf and giving away a penalty.
Christian Pulisic too, left the pitch in tears after an excellent first 45 – where he dovetailed well with Olivier Giroud early on and was buzzing dangerously throughout.
His smart finish after just five minutes was the American’s fifth goal since play resumed in June and you could excuse Arsenal fans bracing themselves for more disappointment.
After all, they were comfortably brushed aside by Chelsea in a European final just 15 months ago. Both teams look considerably different and more change is still coming.
After the drinks break midway through the first-half, Arsenal were less ponderous and more direct against a Chelsea backline that remains shaky and doesn’t exude confidence.
Kepa Arrizabalaga, their ultimate scapegoat this season, watched on from the stands but even the experienced Willy Caballero could do little as Aubameyang slotted home twice.
The first was from twelve yards and drilled into the bottom corner after earning the spot-kick. His second though came from Hector Bellerín’s surging run forward.
Enforced substitute Andreas Christensen came off second best while challenging the fullback, before Nicolas Pepe threaded across a low pass into Aubameyang’s path.
Kurt Zouma showed him onto his left foot, but the Frenchman’s attempts to delay and dispossess the Gabon international were futile.
He feigned to shoot, swept the ball across onto his left before displaying ice-cool composure to dink it over Caballero.
Contentious decisions and officiating criticism
Mateo Kovacic was harshly given a second yellow card minutes later, after fouling Granit Xhaka yards away from referee Anthony Taylor.
Replays showed it was a soft foul, if one at all, but the Croatian midfielder only had himself to blame for finding himself in such a position to begin with.
Chelsea supporters worldwide cried foul after goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez appeared to handle the ball just outside the box. There are loads of angles, so look for yourself:
Pedro, who replaced Pulisic shortly after half-time, saw his game ended in agony after sustaining a suspected dislocated shoulder injury in stoppage-time.
The 32-year-old winger, set to join Serie A side AS Roma this summer on a free transfer, would have wanted a better finish after five successful years in west London.
Bayern next for Lampard’s languishing men
Chelsea face a trip to Munich next weekend with an increasingly depleted side in tow as Bundesliga giants Bayern (3-0 agg) look to earn a Champions League quarter-final place.
N’Golo Kanté (hamstring) was among the substitutes but didn’t feature here, while there were only substitute appearances for Ross Barkley and Tammy Abraham.
They have a seemingly insurmountable mountain to climb, one which hasn’t been helped by an underwhelming collective display here.
As for Arsenal, Arteta needs to be financially backed with a busy summer window to come, one where wholesale changes must be made to progress ahead of 2020-21.
I wonder how Villarreal’s new boss Unai Emery feels after watching his former side play with guile, resiliency and bite – which was in short supply during his two-year reign.