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Double hopes dashed by Arsenal

A 10-man and well-below par Chelsea were beaten 2-1 in the FA Cup final

Arsenal v Chelsea - The Emirates FA Cup Final Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Chelsea were warned not to let standards slip after winning the title. They failed to heed that warning. Arsenal, running the sort of makeshift defence which would make even Pep Guardiola blanch, have won the FA Cup, and the embarrassing thing is that 2-1 undersells the difference between the two sides on the day. Antonio Conte and the players talked a big game about winning the double, but on this showing they had absolutely zero interest in pushing on and adding to their Premier League crown.

The opening goal was some combination of handball and offside. After Diego Costa and N’Golo Kante had managed to tackle each other on an attempted counterattack, Alexis Sanchez batted down a clearing header to the miles-offside Aaron Ramsey, whose presence prevented Thibaut Courtois coming out for the ball. Sanchez then took advantage of the confusion to race into possession and poke home. The goal was clearly illegal twice, but over Antony Taylor decided that two wrongs make a right and pointed back to the centre circle.

Perhaps if Chelsea had bothered turning up before the second half the absurd nature of Sanchez’s goal would have left us with cause for complaint. But in truth Arsenal deserved to be two or three up even without Taylor’s intervention. The first half was a cavalcade of embarrassment. Twice Gary Cahill was forced to clear off the line. Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey hit the post in the same move, the latter from inches out. There were chances going the other way, too — the Gunners defence wasn’t good enough to keep us at bay entirely — but Chelsea’s looks at goal were messy bounces. Arsenal’s were the result of tearing us open repeatedly.

That the Blues went into halftime only down 1-0 was a minor miracle. They’d been outplayed everywhere, dominated in midfield by the not-exactly Cerberean trio of Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka and Ramsey. It took upwards of half an hour for a Chelsea player to win a 50-50, and while the Gunners were composed and thoughtful even when they were briefly on the back foot, the Blues couldn’t make possession stick at all. This was the second-worst half of the season, eclipsed only by the utter debacle at the Emirates.

A single-goal deficit at halftime is not, of course, insurmountable. But although Chelsea improved after the break, they then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot. Victor Moses, who’s had such a strong season as the right wingback, spurned a glorious opportunity to equalise when played through, seeing his low shot clawed to safety by David Ospina. While missing a clear chance is bad, it was nowhere near the low point of Moses’ afternoon. Having already been booked for a foul on the right touchline, he effectively ended the Blues afternoon when he cut inside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the box and fell down.

Taylor saw the play clearly and made the correct call, waving a yellow card for simulation and then the red card which more or less ended the season. It was an infuriatingly bad decision on Moses’ part -- he had an open option in the form of Cesc Fabregas at the top of the box, and chose to try to force a play which wasn’t there — and Chelsea paid for it. The red card forced them to change shape, going into an extremely loose back four, and although the individuals fought back gallantly, the team itself was a wreck.

Chelsea’s individuals were good enough to get them back into the match at least. David Luiz, appalling as a centre half on the day, popped up as a left winger to demolish Ozil inside the Arsenal half. Ozil had no idea what hit him, allowing the Blues to surge forward. Luiz continued his run, drawing Hector Bellerin off Diego Costa, who picked up a cross from Willian and managed to guide the ball past Ospina via a quite handy deflection.

Arsenal v Chelsea - The Emirates FA Cup Final Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

That goal would have felt a lot better had Arsenal not scored while everyone was still celebrating. Olivier Giroud escaped from Cahill and Luiz, and nobody tracked Ramsey’s run*. That left him with a free header from eight yards, and just like that all the momentum was back in the Gunners’ hands.

*‘Nobody tracked Ramsey’s run’ could easily fit into most of the above paragraphs.

They really should have added to their lead before full time. Chelsea were stretched and vulnerable to the counter, and Arsenal kept breaking on them. The variety with which they botched their counterattacks was staggering. Ozil hitting the post with the goal wide open was particularly good, as was Bellerin’s pass to Azpilicueta when there were two red shirts completely free behind him. But for all of Arsenal’s mistakes, they were up 2-1, and on course to win the cup.

A late chance for Costa could and perhaps should have levelled things up, but despite great work to bring the ball down the big striker fired straight at Ospina for a corner. Chelsea would never again seriously threaten, and the Double trickled out of our grasp.

Let Arsenal celebrate their achievement. They deserve it, and we don’t. Chelsea had spent the previous two-matches as champions-elect, and many of the ones before then as champions-inevitable, coasting of their extraordinary run in the league and using past accomplishments to prop them up in their hunt for trophies.

They certainly played this game like their title was a crutch, and paid for it. All cup final losses sting, but perhaps there’s a silver lining: if Conte’s warnings about overconfidence didn’t take before, they might now. The last time the Blues celebrated a Premier League triumph, complacency helped sink them the next year. Losing to Arsenal on such a large stage might be the kick they need to avoid doing the same this time around.

If that little silver lining isn’t enough consolation, there’s a quote that feels particularly appropriate here:

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, "And this too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”

-Abraham Lincoln.

I’ve never worked out which ‘eastern monarch’ Lincoln was referring to here, but it’s the sentiment that matters more than the source. Twelve months ago, Chelsea fans were miserable, finishing tenth and being disappointed by virtually everyone in a blue shirt. That pain has long-since faded. A week ago, we were elated, bouncing with the players as they celebrated the club’s sixth top-flight title. You won’t find many elated fans now. Today: dejection after a disappointing performance. But that wound too shall pass into memory.

It’s not just accomplishments and failures that fade into history. Every player and every manager will come and go. Perhaps sometime in the future Chelsea will lose their way, leaving us to rely on decayed memories of old glories. Perhaps sometime in the future we’ll be a European force again rather than merely a local one, allowing us to look back on this current run as vaguely somnambulant.

When I first started writing here, a Chelsea without the likes of Lampard, Cech, Drogba and Terry was unfathomable. But that team has been lost to time, and new fans won’t even remember that quartet at their peak. Terry’s departure from the club now that the season is over is a marker for something new and perhaps something great. It’s also the marker for the end of something old, grand and creaky.

Lincoln’s advice, applied to football fandom, says to keep your head up in the dark times. But it’s also a warning that the good times don’t last either. Celebrate them while you can, and fix them in your memory. Eventually they’ll be gone. If there’s anything I regret in my years of following Chelsea, it’s been a willingness to look too far to the future, to care more about what’s next than what’s now. The Blues might not have won the FA Cup, but they’re champions, and someday they won’t be. That feeling and those memories are worth lingering with.

Sic transit.

The end of the season is a good time for announcements, so I guess I’ll just go ahead and say it now — this will be my last post at We Ain’t Got No History. I started the site in 2010, and although I stepped back a little two years ago, putting day-to-day management in David’s capable hands, writing here has been a constant for most of my adult life. But seven years is a long time to be writing about football, and it’s time for a change.

There are so many people to thank for my time here that I barely know where to begin. I’ve appreciated working alongside so many passionate and talented writers, and I’ve appreciated the opportunity to meet people who’ve enjoyed my work. But I think most of my gratitude has to be spread around further. That my writing was read widely enough to turn into a career is as bizarre and lovely of an accident as I could ever have hoped for, and I only have my readers to thank for that. Spewing nonsense about Chelsea for you has been a privilege.


PS: I’m sorry I didn’t want Chelsea to sign you, Gary. Oops.

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