Saturday, May 30, 2015

FA Cup Final: Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0

The 144th version of the oldest club sports competition in the world saw Arsenal, the visitors by virtue of a lost coin toss, lineup for a chance at a second FA Cup title in a row against a hungry Aston Villa, who haven’t won a trophy since the league cup in 1996 (and an FA Cup since 1957, their 7th). There were a few surprises in the starting lineups with Walcott started through the middle for Arsenal ahead of the slumping Olivier Giroud and Szczesny kept his place as the starting goalkeeper (even as Ospina has supplanted him in the league) and Shay Given also retained his place in the starting 11 ahead of American Brad Guzan, to start another FA Cup Final 17 years after a losing effort with Newcastle against these same Gunners. The Villains set up defensively from the start, not surprisingly given their being outscored 8-0 in the two league matchups against the Gunners this season, and Arsenal took advantage, dominating possession, earning early free kicks and corners and creating a number of half chances, though nothing definitive in the first 10 minutes. Aston Villa did get forward on the counter on a few occasions, eliciting a shaky catch by Szczesny of a weak Delph shot before he settled in.

On 15 minutes, a cross from Sanchez found the head of Koscielny, who looked poised to open the scoring until a fine hand save from veteran goalkeeper Given going the other way denied him. 90 seconds later, Mertesacker just missed the far post with a quick shot after a fine move from the surprise Arsenal player of the year, Hector Bellerin. Ramsey shot over after a nice touch right on the strike of 20 minutes and on 24 minutes, Ozil sent a perfect cross from the left to Walcott a few yards out, though a block by Kieran Richardson denied what should have been the opening goal. Walcott did look lively from kickoff, continuing the strong performance that saw him net three last weekend against West Brom and leaving fans wondering if he would score in what could be his final appearance for the Gunners (his contract runs out next year). He was almost in on goal again in the 26th minute, though marginally offsides after a clever Ozil through ball. Arsenal were dominating, but the opening goal was not coming as the first half reached its halfway mark with an ultimately weak deflected shot from Ramsey almost in on goal after Walcott switched from received to provider.

Szczesny found himself in no man’s land on 32 minutes and could have cost the Gunners an early deficit but for a miscued header by the Villains, reminding of his and Koscielny’s Laurel and Hardy bit from the Carling Cup four years ago (when they lost on a late botch to Birmingham City 2-1 before the latter were relegated). Delph earned the third booking of the first half for Aston Villa on 37 minutes, after the latest in a series of hard tackles – joining Alan Hutton (33’) and Cleverly (14’), with two of the three for fouls on a lively Sanchez. On 40 minutes, Arsene Wenger saw his selection pay off as Walcott charged down the left to meet an excellent long across field pass from Coquelin pushed it forward to Monreal, who crossed it high to Sanchez. Sanchez headed it back across the goal to a charging Walcott who finished powerfully to the near post past Given with his weaker left foot. Arsenal were deservedly up 1-0 and must have wondered how it wasn’t a bigger lead. Walcott almost scored a second three minutes later on a nice one-two with Ramsey, before a late intervention forced a corner. Ozil was rampant as the first 45 minutes elapsed, earning a 6th corner for the Gunners (against none for the Villains) in extra time.

As the halftime whistle blew, two records stood 45 minutes away from being realized – a sixth FA Cup for Wenger tying George Ramsey (who did it from 1887 to 1920 with, ironically, Aston Villa) for the most by a manager, and a 12th Cup for Arsenal, breaking their tie with Manchester United for most by a club. Arsenal led with 62 percent of the first half possession, eight shots to one (with 4 to 0 on target), and five fouls to Aston Villa’s 11. They were also playing excellent defensively, denying any space or chances to the home team. Yet as any fan knows, the Gunners can suffer both losses of concentration and defensive lapses and a second goal seemed necessary to calm any wavering nerves.

The second half began as the first half ended, with the Gunners in the ascendancy. On 50 minutes, Alexis Sanchez continued his hot streak at Wembley cutting back across two defenders before hitting a thumping shot from 30 yards out, blasting it with late swerve past Givens and into the roof of the net for that second goal. N’Zogbia came off for Agbonlahor three minutes later right before Arsenal earned a seventh corner. The Villains got forward, but a blooping shot was easily caught by Szczesny after he missed out on a ball in the box a moment earlier. Arsenal put it back in the net on 56 minutes, but Walcott was offsides before the rebound from an excellent save by Given was headed in. Another excellent save from Given at the near post stopped a sure Cazorla goal a minute later as Arsenal ramped up the pressure on the Villa goal. Walcott was again denied on 61 minutes, after an Arsenal counter saw him almost free on goal and earned their eighth corner a minute later. And that corner would see Aston Villa’s chances of a comeback all but collapse, as Mertesacker met the Cazorla corner with a free header that went off his shoulder and into the far corner to make it 3-0.

Aston Villa did earn a free kick in a dangerous position on 64 minutes, but Szczesny collected the header right in front of Benteke, guilty on the third goal as he left Mertesacker free behind him. The Villa fans, including Prince William, seemed shattered as the camera panned across them, even as the players still pushed forward for a first goal against the Gunners in three games this season. Ozil could have earned a penalty on 67 minutes, as he was pushed inside the box, but it would have been a soft call. On 71 minutes, Columbian Carlos Sanchez came on for Ashley Westwood and four minutes later Ramsey sent a spectacular lofted through pass to Walcott, who should have scored one-on-one with Given, but hit it high and wide. That was his last contribution as Giroud came on for him and Wilshere for Ozil (77’). Villa’s race seemed run and they had trouble disrupting the metronomic passing of the Gunners or doing anything on the few occasions they did get ahold of the ball.

On 80 minutes, Gabe Agbonlahor did get past the Gunner’s defense and was clearly fouled from behind by Coquelin right on the edge of the box with only Szczesny between him and a goal. The referee, John Moss, didn’t call a penalty, or even a foul, though it appeared even a successful conversion of the former would have done little to change the outcome. Agbonlahor was in the book within two minutes, clearly aggrieved to be denied his penalty claim. Arsenal were comfortable with their three goal lead, passing around and taking free kicks short instead of pushing for a fourth, but continuing to play with real vigor and purpose. A second penalty claim came on 85 minutes, as Grealish appeared to be pulled down by Bellerin trying to recover to the ball in the box. The first claim was questionable, but the second really should have been a penalty. On 89 minutes, Sanchez came off for Oxlade-Chamberlain, making his first appearance after another lengthy injury layoff. And in a final display of their dominance, it would be the “Ox” whose low cross toward the near corner would be flicked in by Giroud just as the three minutes of extra time elapsed.

Arsenal thus won the game 4-0 and, forgoing the two penalty appeals, it could have been much worse. They dominated both ends of the pitch with slick passing, fine pressing and quality finishing. Aston Villa should be proud of even being here and having stayed up after looking marginal favorites to be relegated when Tim Sherwood took over for Paul Lambert, but were thoroughly beaten today, against an opponent that has now outscored then 12-0 in the last three matches. One assumes Gerrard and Liverpool could have given the holders a stiffer test, but that might itself be a stretch given their end of season collapse. With the win, the nine-year trophy drought becomes an even more distant memory and dreams of finally adding a fourth league title to Wenger’s CV a more realistic aspiration.

It was Wenger’s ninth major piece of silverware (three league titles and the six FA Cups), along with five Community Shields. Surprisingly, he has never won a League Cup (losing two finals 2-1) and, of course, has failed to win a European title, losing the only final his team has contested to Barcelona 2-1 in 2006. Winning can be addictive though and the Gunners showed a poise they have lacked the past decade in seeing off Aston Villa today, earning their third piece of silverware in the last 12 months. With the right signings, could this be the culmination of a third act for Le Professuer? We will have to wait and see …

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