I approached the FA Cup Final this season in a resigned fashion, utterly convinced of the inevitably of Chelsea winning and completing their second double. However that simple acceptance meant that I was just going to approach the game with a more relaxed attitude and the intention of just enjoying the day as an event, rather than racked with nerves as I have been on all my previous Cup Final trips.
Recent weeks have suggested a resurgence by Arsenal based on the manager’s decision to follow the new tactical trend of deploying three at the back; in actual fact those of us of a more cynical disposition might suggest that this upturn in form has been fortunate and as much to do with meeting opponents at the right time as any great innovation from Arsène Wenger.
So to Wembley in the traditional Cup Final sunshine, as I made my way up Wembley Way I had to raise a smile at the Wenger lookalike halfway up who was posing with anyone interested in paying for the privilege under a banner proclaiming ‘Wenger In’. The steady trade he was doing suggested that there are still some fans who remain in support of the manager’s ongoing stewardship of the club; either that or it was the purely the simple comedy value of the opportunity that was attracting interest.
After the tragic events in Manchester earlier in the week, we were encouraged to get into the ground early; the atmosphere amongst the Gooner faithful was fairly upbeat and jovial, but then again early evening kick-offs, as now seem to be the norm for the world’s oldest cup competition, do afford a few extra hours for pre-match refreshment.
It felt very much that if Arsenal were going to have any chance in becoming the record winners of the competition, they were going to have to get at Chelsea early and maybe even benefit from some large helpings of lady luck. After the pre-match traditions were out of the way that is exactly what they did; Alexis Sanchez poking home after seemingly having benefitted from a block with his hands and Ramsey having given himself up as offside. Having been caught out on numerous occasions previously, I had ensured that I had seen the lineman’s flag in the air, so was convinced it would be ruled out, even as those around me celebrated. To my utter amazement referee Anthony Taylor, never overly popular amongst Arsenal fans due to a long-standing perception of bias, overruled his assistant and signalled for a goal.
Now with something to cling on to and defend, I could feel the nerves making a belated appearance in the pit of my stomach. Arsenal missed 2 or 3 good chances to increase their lead, and the ever-increasing tension was doing its best to convince me beyond any question of a doubt that we would end up rueing these misses.
In truth, Chelsea did manage to stir themselves out of their complacent lethargy after the break, yet astoundingly our makeshift defence, continued to stand firm. Arsenal’s very own BFG (Big F**kin’ German) and rising star Rob Holding, who is apparently better than Cannavaro according to his newly adopted song, in particular were assured and steady.
But then came the moment I had been fearing, Moses went to ground in the area at the far end and as a witness to so many cruel twists of fate against Chelsea in the past, I was fully anticipating that referee Taylor’s next action would be to point to the spot; yet not content with one major decision to Arsenal’s benefit, he brandished a second yellow to the wingback swiftly followed by the red.
Of course in such typical fashion we conceded just minutes later, and you just knew it had to be Costa, the man who has seamlessly replaced Didier Drogba as Arsenal nemesis in chief. Even as the other end of the ground was celebrating my thoughts were turning to the potential tragedy of losing to ten men in a Cup Final. However cometh the hour cometh the man and less than three minutes later, and for the second time in our last 3 cup finals it was Olivier Giroud who set up Aaron Ramsey for the winner.
So it came to pass that one of the most frustrating seasons in Arsenal’s recent history which has been played out against a backdrop of growing fan unrest ended in victory and a record breaking thirteenth FA Cup win and seventh for the much-maligned manager. As the players celebrated you could actually sense the palpable relief in the manager’s body language.
In the days following the Wembley victory, confirmation was given to the rumours that have been pretty much accepted since the autumn that Arsène had signed a new two year deal. However despite the usual affirmations from owner, chief executive and manager that things are going to be different this time around, the overwhelming feeling amongst fans seems to be that this decision is one borne out of a lack of any coherent alternate plan.
Personally, having heard all of the rhetoric that has come out of the club on so many previous occasions, I am simply unable to see how things are going to be different this time around or indeed how a credible title challenge will be nurtured until fundamental changes are made in the ownership structure and management of the club. I would love to be proven wrong but I foresee more of the same next season.
Of course on a different note, the end of the season is very nearly upon us, with only what promises to be an intriguing Champions League Final ahead of the summer close season and the madness of the transfer window. All of the smart money ahead of the final seems to point to a tight tactical struggle, a battle between the effervescent attacking play of Los Blancos against the supremely disciplined and almost impenetrable Juve defence.
Obviously Real, going for their twelfth competition win and what would potentially be their third in just four seasons, can draw on recent successful experience; however there just seems to be a feeling that Max Allegri’s side are coming of age, that they have grown stronger since they were beaten by Barcelona’s three amigos two years ago and that they might just lift the trophy for the first time in over 20 years. Whatever happens in Cardiff we can only hope that it provides a fitting end to the season.