It was a snapshot of the finishing ability that makes Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a world-class performer and, for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, the upshot was glorious.
Héctor Bellerín had driven the move and, when Nicolas Pépé worked a pass left to Aubameyang, the Arsenal captain knew in a heartbeat what he had to do. Using his right foot, he took the ball around Kurt Zouma as though the Chelsea defender was not there and then, with his left, almost in the same fluid movement, he produced a trademark clipped shot over Willy Caballero, the Chelsea goalkeeper.
It was Aubameyang who had cancelled out Christian Pulisic’s early opener and, after his two goals in the 2-0 FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester City, this was another rich return.
It had felt as though the stakes in this final were higher for Arsenal. Chelsea had already secured Champions League football via Premier League position while Arsenal would have no European football at all if they lost here – together with a significant dent to their revenues. Thanks to Aubameyang’s 28th and 29th goals of the season, they have Europa League qualification and a silver-lined finish to a difficult campaign.
For Chelsea, there was only frustration. They surrendered a position of authority and, after Aubameyang had equalised from the penalty spot, nothing went right for them. They lost César Apilicueta, Pulisic and the substitute Pedro to injuries and, more damagingly, Mateo Kovacic to a second yellow card as their FA Cup challenge fizzled out.
The first half was topsy-turvy, with Chelsea on the front foot at the outset and much more cohesive. Arteta had wanted focus and tightness from the start but he did not get it. Chelsea went ahead with a lovely finish from Pulisic and, from an Arsenal point of view, the way that they got themselves into a dangerous position, with Jorginho finding Pulisic in between the lines and him moving it up to Mason Mount, was too easy. Mount’s low cross deflected, Olivier Giroud backheeled for Pulisic and Arsenal’s defenders seemed to react in slow motion. Kieran Tierney did not want to risk a challenge on Pulisic, who darted on to the ball with far greater purpose, and the dink over Emi Martínez bristled with composure.
Aubameyang had headed wide from an Ainsley Maitland-Niles cross in the third minute but it was otherwise all Chelsea up to the first-half drinks break. Arsenal were guilty of errors, including one from Granit Xhaka when he was robbed by Mount at 0-0. Mount advanced and worked Martínez. After the opening goal, Pulisic showed his quick feet and, with Tierney backing off, he shot at Martínez.
Arteta could not wait to get into his players during the drinks break and they re-emerged with greater intensity. For Chelsea, the pause undoubtedly checked their momentum. The second half of the first period was all Arsenal apart from when Jorginho scooped high after a Mount pull-back. The turnaround was remarkable. Now the fear and looseness at the back belonged to Chelsea.
Pépé threatened with his skill and directness and he thought he had restored parity with a glorious shot from outside the area, which was bent with geometric precision into the far, top corner, but Maitland-Niles had been flagged offside earlier in the move.
Arsenal did not have long to wait for the equaliser and it was all about the ability of Aubameyang to sniff out space. When Tierney dropped a ball in over the top, Aubameyang got himself on the wrong side of Azpilicueta and the Chelsea captain was in trouble. Struggling to get back, he put his hands on Aubameyang, who felt the contact and went down. When Aubameyang addressed the penalty, there was never any doubt as to the outcome.
Azpilicueta would be forced off with an injury and his replacement, Andreas Christensen, blocked well from Pépé after a slip by Marcos Alonso. There was also the moment when Christensen was outfoxed by Pépé and brought him down on the edge of the area. Alexandre Lacazette’s free-kick was off target.
These clubs are no strangers to showpiece occasions – for Arsenal, it was a record 21st FA Cup final appearance – but they have never experienced one like this. Football behind closed doors is discombobulating; this was a whole new level of weirdness. No fans, no colour, no feeling around the spectacle. The team buses had been greeted by a dozen or so supporters and the little round of applause after the pre-game national anthem was one of the many strange details. They would dot the evening.
It was nonetheless open and entertaining fare on the pitch, with the attack-minded players on both sides feeling that the opportunity was there for them to be the hero. Pulisic stood to make the difference when he tore away from Rob Holding on 46 minutes and, with space opening up – a theme of the game – he shaped to bend a shot for the far corner. His hamstring, though, seized up at the crucial moment, seeing the effort go wide and his involvement end. It was a cruel blow for Chelsea.
Back came Arsenal. Pépé got Aubameyang away on the left and when he cut back inside, it needed a smart block from Christensen to deny him. When Aubameyang took the outside track shortly afterwards, drifting away from Zouma to finish, he and Arsenal had glory in their sights.
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Chelsea were reduced to 10 men in controversial fashion when Kovacic, already on a yellow card for a lunge on Xhaka, went in again on his midfield opponent in the 73rd minute. It looked as though Xhaka had trodden on Kovacic but the referee, Anthony Taylor, saw it the other way and reached for a second yellow card.
Martínez diced with disaster when he appeared to handle outside his area in front of Tammy Abraham but this was Arsenal’s day.