Arsenal 2 Chelsea (Arsenal win 2-1 on aggregate)
At the end of a dramatic week in the transfer market Arsenal will begin the post-Alexis Sanchez era with a cup final — and a realisation, after a spirited and morale-boosting victory over London rivals Chelsea — that the things you can’t buy enough of is luck and team spirit.
Arsene Wenger’s side produced an admirable comeback after going 1-0 down to an Eden Hazard strike after only seven minutes at the Emirates to win 2-1 and earn a place against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley on Sunday February 25.
But both their goals, one put into his own net by Antonio Rudiger and the other deflected off the same player into the path of match-winner Granit Xhaka, came courtesy of the footballing gods.
That won’t bother Wenger who has only just started his transfer dealings, which could also see him bring in Pierre-Emerick Augbameyang up front and Johnny Evans to solve Arsenal’s defensive problems which were still evident here, in the early stages at least.
He will have seen, however, some big signs of encouragement. A positive team spirit, for instance, a never-say-die attitude which has been building all season, plus signs that Mesut Ozil is even better without Sanchez in his way — and signs that Jack Wilshere is back to his best too.
Replacing Sanchez won’t be easy — Alex Iwobi is not the answer and produced another of those performances where he promised much but never really delivered; but if Arsenal do pull off a coup to bring in Aubameyang (and reports suggested they have just upped their bid to €55m) then, who knows, maybe Arsenal may go into February stronger than they went into January.
“The team effort in the second half was key when we knew he had to dig deep,” said Jack Wilshere.
Matchwinner Granit Xhaka added: “We changed the system in the second half and we were the better team.”
For hit-and-miss Chelsea things are more complicated. They were excellent in this match early on and Hazard was outstanding; but there’s still something missing at the moment, that ruthlessness we have always associated with them. They never truly looked like winning it.
The ease with which Hazard scored the game’s opening goal after only seven minutes, skipping straight through the heart of the Arsenal defence to convert a pass from Pedro, suggested they were good enough to do so.
But Arsenal equalised within five minutes from a corner and although there was a large slice of fortune about Nacho Monreal’s header, which first bounced off Marcos Alonso and then off Antonio Rudiger (an own goal all the way), it left Chelsea in no doubt that this was not going to be an easy route to Wembley.
The Blues have transfer problems of their own of course. There has been a bizarre list of giant but past-it strikers linked with Stamford Bridge over the last few weeks — from Peter Crouch to Andy Caroll and back again — but Antonio Conte left his only fully-fit striker, Michy Batshuayi, on the bench and chose to move Hazard further forward instead.
You can’t argue with that, to be honest. In much the same way that Cristiano Ronaldo was never going to remain on the wing all his career when he was so clearly the best player in the team at Real, Hazard is probably destined to play the same path — and he was outstanding yet again.
The Belgian had a chance to make it 2-1 in the first half when found completely unmarked at the far post, but on that occasion Arsenal goalkeeper Ospina just about did enough to keep him out.
When the half-time whistle arrived, Chelsea — had shaded it but Arsenal, with Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil to the fore, were not far behind and it was the Gunners who responded better after the break.
By that stage Chelsea already had former Everton man Ross Barkley on the field for his debut after Willian limped off with what looked like a groin injury after 30 minutes — another frustrating injury for Conte to consider as he plots a late transfer-window flurry. Perhaps a more important one that a 6ft 6in striker.
Arsenal’s second goal came after 59 minutes and, again, came with a slice of luck. They did well to work the ball to Lacazette on the right-hand side of the area, and the Frenchman did well to find room to drill in a low cross — but it was a big deflection off Rudiger which saw it land at the feet of Granit Xhaka, who gleefully swept the ball home.
The way Wenger’s post-Sanchez side held out to seal a place at Wembley was impressive; and this result means they have now lost just once in their last eight meeting with Chelsea — a big change from the days when the Stamford Bridge machine used to steamroller them on a regular basis.
Chelsea may not be at their best this season but, as Conte has been keen to point out, they were unbeaten since December 9 before arriving here and that makes it a pretty decent scalp for Wenger’s side.
Could Arsenal actually be better off without their talisman? The final days of the transfer window may answer that more finally, but this was a pretty good start.
Arsenal: Ospina 6, Bellerin 7, Mustafi 6, Koscielny 6, Monreal 6, Elneny 7, Xhaka 7, Wilshere 8, Ozil 8, Iwobi 6 (Ramsey 84), Lacazette 7 (Kolasinac 84). Subs: Macey Chambers, Maitland-Niles, Nelson, Nketiah.
Chelsea: Caballero 6; Azpilicueta 6, Christensen 7, Rudiger 6; Moses 6 (Zappacosta 71; 6), Bakayoko 7, Kante 7, Alonso 6; Willian 5 (Barkley 30; 6), Hazard 9, Pedro 6 (Batshuayi 65; 5). Subs: Eduardo, Cahill, David Luiz, Drinkwater.
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