There is a post-Alexis Sanchez liberation to Arsenal who showed the character, belief and togetherness to come from behind and defeat Chelsea to reach the Carabao Cup Final.
For manager Arsene Wenger this was a sweet victory, another chance to win silverware also, having criticised those who criticise him despite his run of FA Cup triumphs in recent campaigns.
Arsenal beat Chelsea in last season’s final of that competition and after years of being dominated by them it is now just one defeat in eight encounters which is, by any measure, an impressive return for a team so often regarded as flaky.
In fairness Arsenal were the beneficiaries of two huge slices of luck with significant deflections off Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger – including an own goal – leading to their strikes with Granit Xhaka the unlikely match-winner.
Having allowed Sanchez to leave for Manchester United Arsenal, following the thumping win last weekend over Crystal Palace, feel galvanised and their immediate prize is a final against Manchester City at Wembley Stadium on February 25.
With transfer target Edin Dzeko scoring for Roma as this match unfolded it was another reminder to Chelsea that they need to improve their attacking options. They were unfortunate but they also lacked a threat.
And this after Arsenal were torn apart inside the opening 10 minutes. Pedro already had the ball in the net – a header correctly ruled out for offside – and Shkodran Mustafi had already lazily made a mistake, with a sloppy pass, before both players were involved and Eden Hazard opening the scoring.
Hazard, playing as a central striker, with Alvaro Morata injured and Michy Batshuayi simply not trusted by head coach Antonio Conte, had already made his mark. It certainly stunned Arsenal into action, also, with Chelsea goalkeeper Willy Caballero having to react quickly to deny first Jack Wilshere, as he broke through, and then Nacho Monreal with the follow-up.
The goalkeeper was hurt. And then he was beaten. Arsenal won a corner, met by Monreal with his header goal-wards ricocheting first off Marcos Alonso’s head and then Antonio Rudiger’s before flying past Caballero. It really was a bizarre, pin-ball of a goal but credit Arsenal for the speed and purpose of their response.
Already this was a far cry from the turgid stalemate of the goalless first-leg at Stamford Bridge and felt more like the end-to-end, rip-roaring contest that was the recent Premier League encounter between these two sides at this stadium. It was, like that game, error-strewn.
The early goals also meant the tie could not go to penalties and there was no let-up in intent. Willian dragged a shot wide, with Mustafi again caught out, Pedro should have done better from a tight angle when picked out by Andreas Christensen and Alexandre Lacazette almost burst through as he ran onto a long ball forward. It continued to flow from end to end.
There was a blow for Chelsea with Willian having to depart, injured. It meant a debut for Ross Barkley, though, following his £15million move from Everton – and his first involvement was to be pushed off the pitch by Koscielny as he chased the ball down. Barkley’s next involvement, after lining up on the left of a front three, before switching across, was to be chopped down by Wilshere, who was booked.
Barkley, playing his first match since May last year, continued to be involved. He conceded a free-kick, whipped in by Granit Xhaka with it deflecting off Barkley and skimming onto the roof of the net. In the stands, meanwhile, sat Arsenal’s new acquisition Henrikh Mkhitaryan who was cup-tied because he had appeared in the quarter-finals of this competition, in Manchester United’s shock defeat away to Bristol City. On half-time there was one more opportunity with Mesut Ozil’s cross-shot clipping off Christensen and spinning past the post.
Despite the chances his team had created, Chelsea had been dominant and Wenger decided to switch formation, going to three-at-the-back by pushing midfielder Mohamed Elneny deeper although that was almost undone as Hazard ran through – only to fall over. Ridiculously this was interpreted as a dive by some Arsenal fans who then booed him. Hazard had not appealed for anything. He just slipped.
Finally Arsenal threatened with Alex Iwobi, liberated by the change of shape, running down the left and crossing low with Christensen diverting the ball narrowly over. Arsenal broke down the other flank and were again fortunate when Lacazette’s attempt to cut the ball back rebounded off Rudiger, once more, and into the path of Granit Xhaka who poked the ball into the net from close-range. Arsenal were ahead.
It was the home side who continued to press with Ozil breaking into space down the right before squaring the ball inside for the onrushing Iwobi. He decided to shoot first-time with the Caballero saving with his legs. That could have finished it. Conte had to do something and he finally brought on a striker, Batshuayi, but it was Arsenal who were still proving the more dangerous with Xhaka chesting the ball down and volleying wide.