Beauty and the Beast

February 26, 2007
(Archive)

The last Carling Cup final to be played at the Millennium stadium (we hope) will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

GettyImagesHandbags at the Cup Final.

Sadly, there will be few who will focus on a game of excellent quality for all of 90 minutes; instead choosing to dissect the mass brawl in injury time, and a horrific head injury suffered by Chelsea and England skipper John Terry.

For the first half though, Arsene Wenger seemed vindicated in his decision to field his team of youngsters against Chelsea's expensively assembled elite.

Displaying passing and movement that would rival the best in the business, the likes of Denilson and Abou Diaby controlled the 'world class' Frank Lampard and Michael Ballack in the centre and it looked for all the world as if Arsenal's kids would come out on top.

The goal, when it came, was not undeserved. A sublime finish from Theo Walcott after yet more patient and incisive build-up play from the midfield; Chelsea had hardly got hold of the ball.

It is evidence of Jose Mourinho's winning mentality, however, that Chelsea were able to peg back the flying Gunners by grabbing an equaliser with their first shot of the game. The largely ineffectual Ballack proved that he still has the quality to pick a pass and Drogba beat the offside trap (marginally) to slot the ball under the advancing Manuel Almunia.

Reflecting upon the game, Wenger will realise that this sucker-punch had more of an effect on his youngsters than first realised. The Gunners' game went flat, experience began to show and in the second half, although they held their own, the introduction of Arjen Robben contributed to a Chelsea revival that Arsenal simply lacked the mettle to cope with.

Chelsea, however, have that in abundance. Rocked by the injury to Terry, a totally accidental boot-to-face collision which resulted in the Chelsea skipper being stretchered off unconscious, the team came back heroically.

It was brave of Terry to be on the pitch in the first place after injuring his ankle against FC Porto in midweek, but the way in which the Blues revived the game without their inspirational captain, having been outplayed in the first half, was similarly impressive.

While Shevchenko and Ballack went missing, Essien and Lampard seemed to wake up and the young Gunners looked more youthful as the game progressed.

The youngest player on the pitch, 17-year-old Armand Traore, was withdrawn, having shown excellent attacking instinct and pace, but lacking slightly in his positional sense and was replaced by Emmaneul Eboue. Diaby came off for Hleb and Aliadiare for Adebayor, but how Arsenal fans would have preferred to see Rosicky and Henry enter the fray. Although the young Gunners did themselves and the club proud, surely a few of the big names on the bench would have been a safer option?

The man Wenger should have replaced at that stage was Philippe Senderos. The Swiss defender was caught out for Drogba's first goal; thus tightening the grip Drogba has had over him since the 2005 Community Shield where he bullied the Swiss with his physical presence.

On reflection, Wenger may regret not using Johann Djourou or the more experienced William Gallas against the hottest striker in the Premiership, and it was a decision that cost the game when Drogba leaped in front of Senderos to head home the winning goal. Jose Mourinho would have been rubbing his hands with glee having seen that Gallas, who he did not want to let go in the summer, was not on the team-sheet.

Wenger too, may have been equally pleased to see that Arjen Robben was not starting the game, with Mourinho opting for Andrei Shevchenko who still looks woefully short of confidence and pace. In a game where very few in a blue shirt, other than Drogba, came away with any credibility, Robben's pace and trickery culminated in the cross for the goal and he continually caused the Arsenal defence problems on the break.

GettyImagesArjen Robben's Chelsea future is still not clear.

Many have argued in the fall-out that Wenger's team-selection showed disrespect to the competition. They may have a point, despite the excellent performance that the youngsters put in. A cup final is a chance for silverware, and although Wenger was passionately loyal to the likes of Senderos and Hoyte, he cannot be surprised that Chelsea came out on top.

Nor can he be surprised by the reaction to the defeat. Arsenal, and Fabregas in particular, have already shown this season that they cannot accept defeat gracefully. The root cause is inexperience and immaturity; although that is no excuse for the disgraceful actions of the players in the latter stages of the game.

The mass brawl, sparked off by Kolo Toure and Mikel Jon Obi, cannot be forgiven and the FA will surely come down hard on those who sullied such an occasion. Emmanuel Adebayor, although perfectly correct in his dismay at being shown an undeserved red-card, was guilty of a complete lack of respect and will be fined after he had to be escorted from the pitch.

Emmanuel Eboue will also be cited for his 'punch' on Wayne Bridge, for which Adebayor was the fall-guy, and the entire melee left a bad taste in the mouth.

In the previous 46 cup finals only three players have ever been sent off, and in one remarkable two-minute period, that figure has now been doubled.

Chelsea now have two of the last three Carling Cup wins and are still well-placed in three other competitions, although whether that will be enough to placate their big-spending chairman is another matter.

Arsenal are still learning, and while they showed everyone that they have the potential to mix it with the big-boys, they still have a lot to learn. Not just about football, but how to lose gracefully.


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