Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Monday February 26 2007
Alas, it was not to be. Arsene Wenger stuck rigidly to his principles and selected the youngest ever team to take the field in a domestic Cup Final. Way back in 1966, Bobby Moore led a West Ham side with an average age of 24.4 into the F.A Cup Final, the average age of Wenger's young charges yesterday was 21.3. The most senior member of the midfield was represented by Abou Diaby, who at 20 is close to bus pass age. With two 17 year olds to boot and after the red card to Toure, Fabregas took the armband, surely making him the youngest Cup Final captain ever at 19?
Anyways, having left at the ungodly hour of 4.45am, a completely trouble free journey saw us arrive in Cardiff at 10.45am. However, my current course of antibiotics means that alcohol is off the menu, whilst Hon John went down with a virus all of his own which left spirits quite low early on. The spirits were to be further quelled when we discovered that the rail chaos at Newport meant our mate Jim, whose ticket we were in possession of, was running seriously late and it looked as though we may miss kick off. With no pre match nerves to speak of, my apprehension was all focused on the great British railway (a familiar feeling) but fate wore a cummerbund as Cinderella arrived in time for the ball. I never questioned for a second that Wenger would stick to his Young guns in the starting line up, but I must confess I was surprised at just how junior the ranks were. I had fully expected to see the likes of Gilberto and Hleb to help guide the youngsters, but I was delighted to see that the side featured the younger players who had performed so brilliantly in the tournament.
From the off the young Gunners looked sprightly and looked to repay the manager's unwavering faith in them. John Terry was clearly not fit, shifting the ball onto his left foot at every opportunity and at one stage even stooping to head a ball that was gliding along the turf. The youngsters smelled blood and went for the jugular. Denilson was full of bite and industry, robbing Lampard (how does anyone believe he is any good?) and Ballack (anyone remember the song 'Money For Nothing' by Dire Straits?) of the ball and redistributing with the class of a 29 year old on £120,000 a week. Walcott looked electric on the right, cutting Wayne Bridge to ribbons, whilst Diaby snapped in with tackles. The interplay and movement of a side very much wet behind the ears left the Champions dormont. Another surging run from Diaby saw Aliadiere in down the left, his low cross caused panic in the box, but Chelsea managed to scramble clear. Baptista caused Carvalho all sorts of problems with his body strength and intelligent play with his back to goal. The Beast unleashed a shot bound for the top corner which was amazingly clawed clear by Petr Cech. Had Cudicini or Hilario been keeping goal, Baptista would have had his seventh goal of the tournament.
Arsenal's courageous play got its just rewards, the awesome Diaby turned a neat ball round the corner and past Carvalho. Theo Walcott ran onto it and curled a delicious finish past the stranded Cech. Cue pandemonium in the Arsenal end, as a plethora of limbs swayed this way and that. Theo Walcott had his highly anticipated first Arsenal goal on the big stage, one in the eye for the vultures in the press and a cue for the Gooners who have been slagging him off something rotten in the past few weeks to suddenly start hyping him to the skies again. The Reds were in the ascendancy and I felt we needed another to cement our dominance. My words to my good buddy Jim were almost exactly what my words were on Tuesday night, high up in the visitors' enclosure in the Philips Stadium. We have to turn our dominance into goals, there is no way Mourinho will let Chelsea play like this in the second half.
Unfortunately, Chelsea were to show the stuff of Champions, equalising well against the run of play. Ballack played Drogba in on the left, it looked to be marginally offside, but in these situations it is hard to castigate the linesman when the margins are so paper thin. What is annoying is that Eto'o and Drogba have benefited against us in our last two finals. Still, with Traore appealing in vain for offside, Drogba was left with plenty of time to slot past Almunia. After a few minutes of self doubt, the young Gunners picked themselves up again and went at Chelsea with renewed vigour, Aliadiere exposing Terry's lack of fitness by sprinting onto a Baptista through ball, as Carvalho hauled down Baptista off the ball, Aliadiere was left with no options in the box. Arsenal could have had a penalty on the stroke of half time, as Fabregas delivered a free kick, Carvalho again hauled Baptista down in the area, which was lunacy considering the Beast had no chance of getting to the ball. Call me bitter (I am), but Webb gave Chelsea everything they told him to give, he was a weak spineless official way out of his depth. In fact, a jellyfish might have had more backbone than Mr.Webb, who time and again blew a sympatheitc whistle every time someone from either side complained hard enough for a decision. No complaint, no foul, as Webb let the constant indiscretions of Ballack and Essien go because Denilson and Diaby did not scream in his face John Terry style. That said, his performance was not a contributory factor to us losing, it's just disappointing to see the constantly poor level of officiating in this country as referees get the fundamentals laughably wrong. Borderline offsides I can stoamch, but failing to apply the basic laws of the game (a shirt pull is a foul) and sending someone off for mistaken identity is not forgiveable. Video eveidence is a must in the modern game.
The half time whistle went and with the scores undeservedly level, I felt our chance had gone. Mourinho has a high propensity towards early substitutions, and the arrival of Arjen Robben to take on the inexperienced Armand Traore was inevitable. Chelsea are the best around at knocking the heat up when they need a goal. However, the young Guns started the second half in the same vain as the first, Denilson played Diaby in down the left as Diarra was once again left stranded, but Cech thwarted what would have been one of the most deserving goals ever scored in a League Cup Final. But Chelsea pressed on and what had been one way traffic in the first half, blossomed into a wonderfully open encounter. Frank Lamprd's solitary contribution to the game saw his thirty yard piledriver swerve onto the crossbar. I guess that's what happens when he doesn't get those deflections eh?
But early in the second half a sickener was in store. I was at the other end of the ground at the time, but the severity of the blow recived by John Terry was immediately obvious as Almunia and Fabregas urgently motioned the medical staff onto the pitch. Having accused the Thames Valley ambulance sevice of negligence back in September, it was sadly ironic that Gary Lewin was the first to arrive on the scene. The Chelsea fans behind the goal unfotunately began to chant 'w*****s' at our players, despite the fact that our physio was treating their captain. While Chelsea's fans hurled objects (I'm told celery, but there were clearly other things being thrown) at our players, the Arsenal fans applauded Terry as he was stretchered off. It's also worth mentioning, for all Chelsea's bleating about Stephen Hunt, Michael Ballack left a foot in on Almunia in the second half in EXACTLY the same fashion. Fortunately, his boot only caught Manuel's stomach and there was no repeat of Cech's horrific injury. You won't hear about that from Mourinho.
Personally I did not think that Terry would complete the ninety minutes, and his selection was an act of desperation on Chelsea's part, but I was expecting a sore ankle and not a sickening head injury to curtail his day. Fortunately, he has recovered and deserves admiration for his sturdiness in the face of two bad injuries. The blow he receievd was of such force, that Abou Diaby had to be replaced with an ankle injury and Arsenal's fluency went down the tunnel with him. Aliadiere and Baptista, who rarely play ninety minutes, were stricken with fatigue. The whole game was chrytalised by two opportunities. A beautifully flighted Fabregas corner found Toure completely unmarked, but the skipper for the day headed over when he should have scored. Minutes later, his compatriot was to show him how it is done, Drogba heading in Robben's brilliant left wing cross. Chelsea had been thoroughly outplayed for large sections of the game, but their experience told through, not only did they never give up, but they showed the youg Gunners all about Wenger's prophetic pre match phrase, 'controlling the key moments of the game.' You saw United do it at Fulham on Saturday and Chelsea did it yesterday, fair play to them. But once the average age of yesterday's side rises to 23, I cannot see a side in the world stopping them.
Shevchenko hit the bar in a lte breakaway, but other incidents were to grace the backpages (or cat ltiter as I call it). There followed a regreattable melee which, though was out of spirit with the immense quality of the game, had been rumbling on the underbelly of the game for a few minutes. The introduction of Emmanuel Eboue seemed to give rise to a few nasty incidents. Firstly, his indignation as Arjen Robben dived to win Chelsea a precious free kick (oh don't look so shocked) was justified, but he has to recognise the irony of castigating somebody else for diving, I hope the incident teaches him how annoying it is to everybody when he does it. From there on, he was constantly finger wagging and as Webb persitently failed to punish Chelsea's shirt pulling and dissent offences, Arsenal lsot their rag in a regreattable way. Mikel pulled back Toure, and as the Ivorian sought to recover the ball swiftly, Mikel kicked it away. Frustrating yes, but the ensiung melee was completely over the top as our frustration got the better of us. Toure tried to lay into Mikel, as Lampard and Fabregas became involved unnecessarily, pulling at each other. Whilst Emmanuel Eboue used the whole thing as an excuse to deck somebody, Bridge went down very theatrically, but Eboue raised his hands and you cannot do that. Both managers raced onto the turf to calm the situation and when everybody had put their handbags down, Webb gave Mikel and Toure their marhcing orders. At the time, the activity was so rumbustuous it was hard to take it all in. But having now watched the incident back, I cannot really see that there was any need to send Mikel or Toure off, no fists were raised, it was just the usual pushing and shoving and both were unlucky. Webb let his ego intercept and made the wrong call. Then amazingly Adebayor was sent off in a case of mistaken identity. Adebayor was involved, but did nothing that 18 other players did not do. Unfortunatley, whilst his sense of injustice was justified, his histrionic reaction was not and will probably spell curtains for any sort of appeal. Being hauled off by your physio and captain is akin to an innocent defendant screaming bloody murder at the jury. It seems to me the only player who should have been sent off was Eboue, who was not punished. Fabregas and Lampard got deserved yellow cards, but it's hard to see what Mikel and Toure did that was so different to Fat Boy and Cesc. This now means Arsenal have had four players sent off in our last three Cup Finals and it is paramount to keep your cool in these games.
Ultimately, we lost our heads at a time when we were chasing the game and any chance of an equaliser was gone after that. Neither side will come out of the fracas with any credit, though both managers have been uncharacteristically magnanimous in their view of the events. The media will hypocritically declare shame on our clubs for the incident, given the behaviour and the sickening tone of racism inherent in our media, the papers coming over extholing the virtues of morality is like Myra Hindley lecturing you to watch your speed on the dual carriageway. The media love it and that is why they are carrying the whole incident with such fervour, it sells them more papers/ sky subscriptions while they can express mock disgust. It was Oscar Wilde who once said, 'scandal is idle gossip made tedious by morality.'
Overall, my feeling is one of overwhelming pride, a team containing seven players younger than myself (and one the same age) took the Champions all the way and, at times, gave them a footballing lesson. It's a real shame that the Chelsea players all had their backs turned when the young Arsenal side went up to collect their medals, but the nihilism that runs through their whole club make acts of classlessness such as this their calling card nowadays. Diaby, Denilson and Fabregas looked every inch the world class midfielders, while Ballack and Lampard looked like lost adolescents. Walcott, imbued with confidence, looked an enormous prospect again, the swagger back in his young limbs. Not only in the Final did the young boys do Arsenal proud, I have been to every game in this competition and it has been an unbridled pleasure to see the mixture of poise, pace, precision and grit in these youngsters. The Carling Cup would have been a fitting tribute, and while defeat smarts today, the faith Wenger has placed in his kids has not been misplaced and it will bring is bigger, more prestigious trophies in years to come. The learning curve will be huge, whilst the likes of Denilson, Diaby, Traore will feel ten feet tall that their manager belives in them to this extent, Wenger will have sped up their progression ten fold on yesterday alone. At the final whistle, I applauded heartily as they did my club proud, no matter how much the press try to villify us for a bit of pushing and shoving. I'd buy all of those players a drink for their perofrmance this year, if only they were old enough. LD.
Date:Monday February 26 2007
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