There are a number of interesting sub-plots brewing on the eve of Saturday’s FA Cup final – not least the sobering thought that it could be Arsene Wenger’s swansong at the club to which he’s dedicated the last twenty years of his life.
Aside from that, you’ve also got the slew of ill-timed injuries to the Frenchman’s centre-backs (leaving open the the very real chance we could see Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal paired together in the final of a major competition), the question mark over whether Chelsea can live up to the favourites tag, and – oh yeah: John Terry. Will John Terry lift the trophy in full kit?
But, despite all that, it’s going to be difficult to better 2002. That was the last time the FA Cup Final was contested between London’s two biggest clubs (preemptive apology to angry Tottenham fans here).
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Claudio Ranieri took his up-and-coming Chelsea side (pre-Abramovich, although not without a touch of quality: Zola, Lampard, Desailly) to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, where the imperious Arsenal – league champions, again – were waiting for them.
The next fifteen years of Wenger’s lopsided Arsenal tenure have since revealed that this would be right around the peak of their run.
They had a rock solid defence, still propped up by the remnants of the George Graham days with skipper Tony Adams at its heart; an all-action, powerful midfield, anchored by Patrick Vieira; and spearheading the attack: Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. Yes, Gunners fans really have never had it so good.
The early part of the game panned out as you would expect of a clash between the newly-crowned league champions and the side which finished a disappointing sixth (with patience in Ranieri now beginning to wear thin). Chelsea were content to concede possession, spending much of the first half camped in front of their own box whilst Arsenal huffed and puffed.
After the break, Chelsea grew into the game, and David Seaman – the Gunners’ pony-tailed goalkeeper – was forced into a couple of saves, first from Eidur Gudjohnsen and then Jesper Gronjkaer.
Then, the game’s defining moment. Ray Parlour brings the ball forward for a rare Arsenal counter-attack. He’s got Henry, Ljunberg and Pires for support, but – what’s this? – he tries his luck and curls one beyond the out-stretched Carlo Cudicini from 30-yards!
Parlour, who found the net just 32 times in the 500+ games he played over the course of his career, was such an unlikely goalscorer that Soccer AM’s Tim Lovejoy – who provided red-button commentary for Sky Sports – was confident enough to preemptively rule out the possibility of Arsenal scoring from their venture forward, with the now legendary refrain: It’s only Ray Parlour.
To be fair, you couldn’t really fault an opposing fan for being relieved to see the Romford Pele, and not any of the brilliant attackers on Wenger’s side, pick up the ball inside their team’s half.
Ten minutes later, Ljungberg sealed the game with yet another sublime solo goal, and Arsenal celebrated their second (and final) Double under the premiership of Arsene Wenger.
Whilst the chance of lifting two trophies this season has been long gone, another FA Cup could be a fitting way for Wenger to bow out.
It’s only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain…