Brave battling Arsenal reach FA Cup Final after showing character in 2-1 Wembley win
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Arsenal won through to the 2017 FA Cup Final in the merry month of May by valiantly triumphing over the might of Manchester City 2-1 after extra time on a dramatic semi-final afternoon at Wembley today.
Despite falling behind to a 62nd minute goal from Sergio Aguero a brave and battling performance to stir the heart of every fan on the planet saw the team equalise through Nacho Monreal 11 minutes later.
90 minutes of football couldn’t separate the pair of Premier League heavyweights desperate to win their only chance of silverware this afternoon so it fell to Alexis Sanchez to net the winner in the 101st minute of extra time.
There were delirious scenes after his goal and at the end of the game as Arsene Wenger’s men – rightly criticised for a lack of grit in the dismal 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace only two weeks ago – rolled up their sleeves and gave a tough, committed performance to shock City.
Afterwards Guardiola may have derided the Gunners for ‘playing long balls up to Giroud’ but make no mistake – this was an Arsenal performance full of character and determination that showed the world the North Londoners do possess heart and a fierce appetite for battle.
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Yes, Arsenal rode their luck as City hit the woodwork three times. But their appetite for the battle on an uncompromising afternoon was as heartening as it was unexpected.
Wenger surprised many by playing three at the back for this game. Even if Guardiola claimed he was expecting it.
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Rob Holding started to the left of the central Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel on the right.
They were supplemented by Nacho Monreal as an auxiliary left wing back and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right – with both wing backs having stellar games.
An early low shot by de City’s Bruyne flew past Petr Cech was a warning that whatever your formation and tactics you still can’t afford to give good players time and space on the edge of your area.
The match marked Arsenal’s record 42 appearance at Wembley and their 29th FA Cup semi-final which put them one ahead of Manchester United.
For Wenger, chasing his seventh FA Cup and three wins in the last four tournaments, it was imperative his team got off to a good start against the aristocrats from Manchester.
They did just that in terms of performance – it was instructive to see Oxlade-Chamberlain power forward in the opening stages. With his power, pace and energy, as well as attacking instincts he is certainly suited to the role.
On 15 minutes he powered to the byline past Leroy Sane to flight the ball onto Olivier Giroud’s head.
The ball was gathered by Claudio Bravo. City then broke as Sergio Aguero crossing the ball for a David Silva header that Cech tipped over.
It was to be the magical Silva’s last real contribution as he hobbled off on 22 minutes for Brent boy Raheem Sterling after failing to shake off a knock after a coming together with the uncompromising Gabriel – another Arsenal played who excelled today by showing a toughness many thought had vanished from his game.
Sterling wasted no time in making his mark on the game by firing narrowly wide moments later - after Alexis Sanchez was booked for catching an onrushing Fernandinho on the right flank – with his low shot coming from the resultant free kick.
Oxlade-Chamberlain then showed defensive discipline by tracking the dangerous Sane’s road by cutting his cross off right on the byline when well placed.
With eight minutes to half time Aguero turned onto the outside of Monreal in the box and fired just wide of Cech left hand-side near post.
City then had a goal disallowed by referee Craig Pawson – who has been appointed to officiate next month’s FA Cup Final. Sane crossed the ball from the byline on the left flank.
The ball appeared to cross the byline after Aguero’s shot when he angled the ball at Cech who parried on the line before Sterling fired home.
But Pawson gave the Gunners a lifeline when he disallowed it. Initially it had been thought by this observer the official had denied it as he believed the ball had crossed the byline during Sane’s cross. It hadn’t. By about a foot.
His controversial decision was taken as he was convinced the ball has curled out of play in the air before re-entering the field of play. But it hadn’t.
City were the victims of a tight – but incorrect call. With the importance of making the right decision growing all the time in big games surely technology could be employed in situations such as these. It would only take a few seconds.
As it was the remaining minutes of the first half were played out in an increasingly fractious atmosphere.
Pawson then incurred the wrath of the Arsenal support – all 33,000 of them – by turning down a Gunners penalty appeal after Sanchez’s fall in the box.
This time it was the correct decision. As he blew for half time there were boos from both sets of supporters over his decisions. Who’d be a referee?
The second half started with Arsenal kicking towards their magnificent supporters bathed in sunlight – or at least half the end. The ones that were in the rather more chilly shade were almost warmed up after Ozil’s fired a shot wide following a slide rule pass from Sanchez’s free kick on the left.
But on 61 minutes they had their dreams of glory apparently shattered when Aguero was sent through into acres of space in the Arsenal half.
The world class Argentine powered forward, and despite initially appearing to have taken a heavy second touch, ran into the box before lifting the ball over an onrushing Cech to make it 1-0 to City – sending their fans into raptures.
The ones doing the ‘Poznan’ in front of the Wembley press box were delirium personified – and if their heartfelt intensity was additionally fuelled by having taken drink at some stage today – who could blame them?
Many would have been part of the 32,000 the club averaged in the third tier not so long ago. Despite their influx of money City are a people’s club with genuine fans and it would take a curmudgeon not to acknowledge that during their passionate celebrations.
Yet it was Arsenal fans who were celebrating wildly 11 minutes later after left wing back Monreal – of all people – ghosted into the box and slotted home with his right foot.
What followed was an explosion of joy from the player, his teammates and fans alike – brought together in unity through the utter delight of a Wembley equaliser.
Monreal’s leveller also showed the importance wing-backs can provide as they operate higher up the pitch than traditional full-backs – and can not only supplement attacks but, in the joyous example of Monreal – finish them moves as well.
It was fitting the two Arsenal wing backs created and scored the goal after Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross saw Monreal net his first goal in more than two years for the club.
Wenger’s bravery in opting for a 3-4-2-1 formation finally looked to be paying dividends.
City weren’t finished in an increasingly frantic finale as Toure hit the post after Cech’s fingertips desperately pushed the ball onto the woodwork.
Fernandinho then thudded the ball against the bar in a tense finale as both teams pushed for what would surely be the winner.
It wasn’t to be as Pawson blew for the end of 90 minutes in a tense but captivating match.
Both sets of players – and supporters – having given everything had to raise themselves again for 30 minutes of extra time.
Guardiola opted for the fresh legs of Fabian Delph and Kelechi Iheanacho for Aguero and Fernandinho – but the new boys barely had time to touch the ball before Arsenal went 2-1 through Sanchez in the 101st minute.
The ball fell to the Chilean’s fast feet in a crowded box and he slotted past Bravo before celebrating wildly with his teammates – as the goal sent the massed Arsenal ranks into raptures.
There were a few handbags as tempers flared on the pitch but as Pawson blew for the end of the first half of extra time the momentum was with Arsenal. Could they hold onto it?
De Bruyne then fired across Cech’s goal with a low shot that went narrowly wide. Otamendi then clattered into Ramsey’s ankles and received a deserved yellow card from Pawson as the City man’s frustration with how events unfolded came to the fore.
Francis Coquelin then replaced the gifted but mercurial Ozil in the 119th minute. The gifted yet mercurial German had earned his ovation today for allying creativity with hard work. As did all this perplexing team in a performance so full of fight you wonder whether the last four months have been a bad dream.
Arsenal weren’t dreaming but they were in wonderland as Pawson finally blew the finally whistle at the end of two hours of hard-fought football to leave City heartbroken – but the Gunners overjoyed at reaching the May 27 FA Cup Final.
Surely a more streetwise team than this current City vintage – Chelsea for example – would have seen out the game at 1-0.
They didn’t and the rest is history.
Questions over how Arsenal fare against Antonio Conte’s team who will surely be pressing for a double can wait.
As can questions over Wenger’s future – although an inquiry as to whether today’s result would make the long-serving Frenchman look forward to next season was batted away to laughter after the game as he declared himself happy with the result. The fact the glint in his eye has returned will suggest he’s staying.
But today at Wembley – glorious, evocative Wembley – all that mattered on this sunny spring afternoon was the result that will enter into Arsenal folklore.
The abundance of character and fight shown by this team today has seen to that.
Arsenal: Cech, Gabriel, Koscielny, Sanchez (booked), Ramsey, Ozil (Coquelin 119) Giroud (Welbeck 83), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Bellerin 105), Holding, Monreal, Xhaka
Manchester City: Bravo, Kompany (c), Aguero (Delph 105), Navas, de Bruyne (booked), Sane, Silva (Sterling 22, Iheanacho 105), Clichy, Fernandinho, booked (Fernando 99) Otamendi (booked) Toure
Referee: Craig Pawson