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Poignant FA Cup final reflects current mood in UK

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LONDON — Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the 2016-17 FA Cup on Saturday at Wembley Stadium, but this was about much more than a game of soccer.

“They just keep coming, no matter what, don’t they?” said a fellow journalist I bumped into surveying the scene outside Wembley before kick off as a wave of red and blue supporters inched towards the home of soccer while under armed police guard.

They certainly did.

The FA Cup final on Saturday, a 90,000 sellout, provided most of the UK with a slight distraction from a nightmare week where the worst terrorist attack since the 7/7 bombings in 2005 dominated the hearts and minds of a nation.

After watching on in horror as 22 people were killed and 116 injured by a suicide bomber outside Manchester Arena late Monday, the attention of everyone in the UK has been focused on the atrocity in Manchester.

That horrendous attack led to the UK being placed into the highest terror threat level of “critical” for just the third time since it was introduced in 2006 and things like soccer games, rivalries and trophies seemed somewhat meaningless as the threat of an “imminent attack” dominated the news.

It didn’t matter that this was a final being played between two Premier League teams from London. Everyone had Manchester on their minds.

A few hours before the game British Prime Minister Theresa May downgraded the terror threat level to “severe” rather than critical, but that didn’t stop armed policeman in abundance at Wembley as armored police cars replaced some of the burger vans which usually littered the roads near Wembley Way.

Arsenal fan Andy Calcutt stood on an elevated walkway outside Wembley having a cigarette as he pushed his sunglasses further up his nose.

The skyline of London was visible in the distance on a glorious early summer day and the message was clear: terrorists will never win.

“It is the British spirit to soldier on and go through it. It is fantastic today,” Calcutt said. “Nobody that I know has any issues about turning up to a big event. There is obviously more of a security presence, which gives you a bit of reassurance, but it’s not an issue for anyone here. We keep on going through our day to day. That’s how we get on.”

As the glorious sunshine beat down on Wembley two hours before kick off, there was a lingering sense of remembrance but celebration was in the air too.

On Friday the most senior counter-terrorism officer in the UK, Mark Rowley, urged citizens to “go out as you planned and enjoy yourselves” around the bank holiday weekend.

After the week the UK has had, it is easy to understand why that was the message following security measures being reviewed for over 1,300 events as the Aviva Premiership rugby final took place at Twickenham, the Manchester Great Run was scheduled and there were many huge events up and down the nation.

The FA Cup final was by far the biggest as the eyes of the world fixed itself on Wembley.

Chelsea fan Marcus Mays stood with his partner looking out on Wembley Way as the fans flooded in before the cup final.

“I was born in Manchester and I have a lot of friends from up that way and I think everyone was behind Manchester United for their Europa League win in midweek. It was lovely to see,” Mays said. “We have got to get on with our lives and I think everyone appreciates that. I can’t imagine anybody swerving a cup final because of the terrorist attack. Everyone has to crack on with their lives.”

That sentiment was echoed time and time again by everyone in and around Wembley. There was plenty more waiting in lines before you got into the stadium but nobody complained, nobody moaned. They queued and got on with it with a smile on their face.

As I walked out of Wembley Park underground station before the game, a guy in an Arsenal shirt went up to a policeman and shook his hand and thanked him, then walked off.

It has been that kind of week, to appreciate those around you and what you have.

At times like these you call your family and friends more often, you kiss your wife, husband or kids more. You reach out to strangers and offer a smile while sat on the subway train, or a polite nod, when previously the stresses of the modern world appeared to be too much to offer such niceties.

Even in a major cup final between bitter rivals there was respect.

Sure, there was chanting back and forth between Chelsea and Arsenal fans beforehand, laughter and jokes as groups of friends met up in among policeman armed with semi-automatic rifles, but just before kick off it became apparent how reflective the mood was.

There was an immaculately observed minute’s silence to remember the victims as both teams stood united around the center-circle, linked to their teammates. 90,000 fans stood in silence as some began to chant “Manchester!” but quickly stopped.

Fans held up signs reading “I love MCR!” and on the large TV screens at either end of Wembley messages simply read “We Stand Together” as the vast three-tier venue stood perfectly still.

Following a week like this it easy to brush off the insignificance of sport. So often fans, and even players and managers, watch or get involved in the action to try and forget everything else in life for a few hours a week.

Speaking after the game, Antonio Conte reinforced that message, one he had shared before the game.

“It was an important game but don’t forget the tragedy in Manchester,” Conte said in the aftermath of defeat.

He was right. This was no place to forget.

Chelsea and Arsenal’s fans held banners up saluting Manchester and the victims of the attacks and before the game both clubs canceled plans for a trophy parade in London on Sunday, out of respect for Manchester and also to not put a further burden on the already-stretched police force as they continue their huge investigations.

Everyone in the stadium and everyone at home hoped they’d never have to live through seeing scenes like this again. Children and their families killed as they left a music concert.

At times like these sport can provide a distraction and helps some to heal, but there’s so many more important things going on in the UK, and across the globe, right now.

The overall message portrayed at Wembley on Saturday was a poignant one: this was no time to hide.

Now, even in one of the darkest moments for the UK in recent history, was the time to face the world and stand tall.

“It’s just another day. You can’t live in fear, can you?” Arsenal fan Ryan Kilburn said. “There’s no point in hiding.”

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea: Gunners win FA Cup in dramatic fashion

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LONDON — Arsenal won the 2016-17 FA Cup after beating London rivals Chelsea in a dramatic Wembley final on Saturday.

The Gunners took the lead controversially through Alexis Sanchez and had numerous chances to extend their lead in the first half.

Chelsea were reduced to 10 men late in the second half with Victor Moses shown a second yellow card, but Diego Costa equalized just when they appeared down and out. Moments later Aaron Ramsey popped up to head home the winner and despite late chances for both teams the Gunners held on for victory.

Arsenal have now won the FA Cup in three of the past four season, with the north London club now winning a record 13 FA Cups and manager Arsene Wenger has now secured his seventh FA Cup, the most by any manager in history.

[ MORE: FA Cup box score, stats ]

Arsenal got off to the perfect start, albeit in controversial fashion, as the ball broke to Sanchez it appeared to hit his hand but the Chilean raced through and barged past Aaron Ramsey to smash home a low shot. Ramsey was clearly in an offside position as the linesman flagged but referee Anthony Taylor overruled the decision and the goal stood. 1-0 to the Arsenal.

At the other end the ball broke kindly to Diego Costa but three Arsenal defenders charged in to block his shot.

Arsenal then missed a host of chances to doubled their lead as Mesut Ozil beat Thibaut Courtois but Gary Cahill hooked off the line, then Danny Welbeck hit the post with a header and the follow up from Ramsey bounced off his chest and hit the post.

Chelsea had a great chance as a long ball forward found Costa who beat Rob Holding and raced into the box but David Opsina saved bravely to keep Arsenal ahead.

The Gunners then went agonizingly close once again before half time as Welbeck’s shot from close range was blocked by Courtois and then as the ball rolled towards the goal Cahill was again on hand to clear. Pedro blazed a chance over the bar for Chelsea before half time but Arsenal led and were incredibly unlucky not to be further in front.

In the second half Chelsea, as expected, came flying out of the traps. N'Golo Kante had an effort saved, then Per Mertesacker made a fine tackle on Costa before Opsina saved superbly from Moses.

Pedro flashed a shot wide and Chelsea kept pouring forward as they became increasingly susceptible on the break as Sanchez found Hector Bellerin brilliantly but Courtois caught his poor cross.

Another huge moment of controversy arrived with just over 20 minutes to go as Moses went down in the box after being closed down by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and referee Taylor decided to book the Chelsea man for simulation. That was Moses’ second yellow of the game and Chelsea were down to 10-men.

Just when it looked like Chelsea had no hope, Willian clipped a hopeful ball into the box which Costa chested down and his shot into the ground took a slight deflection off Mertesacker and in. 1-1. Game on.

Less than three minutes later the Gunners were back in front as substitute Olivier Giroud, who had been on the pitch for a matter of moments, clipped in a delightful cross which Ramsey headed in to make it 2-1 and sent the Arsenal fans wild.

Bellerin raced clear late on but his low shot across goal squirmed inches wide, then Opsina made a wonderful save from Costa and Ozil hit the post, however none of that mattered as Arsenal held on to win their third FA Cup in four years and end Chelsea’s hopes of securing the double.

LIVE – Arsenal, Chelsea square off in FA Cup final

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Arsenal and Chelsea clash in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday.

[ LIVE: Follow the FA Cup final here ]

For Chelsea a win would complete a memorable double in Antonio Conte‘s first season in charge.

And for Arsenal it is about restoring some pride in a season where they finished in fifth place in the Premier League, and Arsene Wenger becoming the record FA Cup holder as a manager.

Below are the starting lineups for both teams as Chelsea line up as expected, while Arsenal have Per Mertesacker starting with Gabriel, Koscielny and Mustafi all out injured.

Click on the link above to follow the game live, while ProSoccerTalk will have analysis, reaction and more from Wembley following the full-time whistle.


LINEUPS

Arsenal:

Chelsea: Courtois; Azpilicueta, David Luiz, Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic, Alonso; Pedro, Diego Costa, Hazard. Subs: Begovic, Zouma, Ake, Terry, Fabregas, Willian, Batshuayi

FA Cup: Three key battles between Arsenal, Chelsea

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The FA Cup final usually brings out terrific entertainment for the fans, and this Saturday’s finale should be no different.

When Arsenal and Chelsea take the field at Wembley Stadium, it will be the last chance this season for some of the Premier League’s stars such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Chelsea and Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil for Arsenal to bring glory to their club.

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

The match features two teams heading in different directions. Chelsea, the Premier League champions are in the ascendency after a one-year hiatus out of European competition, while Arsenal finished outside the top-four places in the Premier League for the first time in 20 years under manager Arsene Wenger.

In addition, there’s plenty of other storylines to watch on the field, from whether it’s Costa, Sanchez and Ozil’s potential last matches with their respective teams to how Arsenal will deal without two of its three regular centerbacks they’ve used this season.

Here’s a look at three key battles on the field ahead of the FA Cup final:


Arsenal’s centerbacks vs. Diego Costa

Diego Costa may be a thorn in Chelsea’s side off the field when it comes to the constant speculation of a move away from Stamford Bridge, but on the field this season he’s been brilliant. Costa scored 20 goals in the Premier League and another goal in FA Cup action, and he contributes off the ball as well, drawing the defense in towards him while opening up space for teammates including Hazard and Willian.

Heading into Saturday, it’s unclear who on Arsenal will be tasked with marking Costa. Laurent Koscielny was issued a straight red card in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Everton and will miss the FA Cup final due to suspension while fellow centerback Gabriel left the field on a stretcher after suffering a knee injury. In addition, Shkodran Mustafi is still recovering from a concussion and is a doubt for Saturday.

That leaves Wenger with just Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding as healthy centerbacks, which could force Wenger to revert back to his usual four-man backline from the more recent three-man backline that’s been used.

Regardless of who Arsenal put out there, expect Costa to be at his best, attempting to physically dominate his opponent and get under their skin.


Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante vs. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez

Arsenal are at their best when they play through the middle of the field before finding runners out wide, setting up crossing attempts into the middle or perhaps another chance to play through the lines in the center of the field.

Standing in Arsenal’s playmaking duo of Mezut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s way are Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. Kante, as Riyad Mahrez saw last year, does so much of the dirty work defensively that he allows his teammates including Matic and Hazard to bomb forward and either create or finish goal-scoring opportunities.

Kante will have his hands full dealing with Ozil and Sanchez in midfield, and Matic may need to sit a bit deeper to cut off the passing lanes, potentially taking him out of Chelsea’s counter attack.


Eden Hazard vs. Hector Bellerin

For all the speed that Hazard possesses on the ball, there’s at least one player on Arsenal who can keep stride pace-for-pace.

With Hazard likely lining up on the left wing, Arsenal’s right wing back Hector Bellerin will likely face Hazard up one-on-one at both ends of the field, setting up a fun encounter. With Bellerin’s speed and ability to track back, he may be open to a few 40-yard springs into space down the right wing, knowing that Hazard probably won’t be in hot pursuit.

But if Bellerin doesn’t end up with the ball and there’s an Arsenal turnover, Hazard on his own or against a centerback on the left wing could be a nightmare for Arsenal to deal with.

Conte delighted to win PL, turns attention to FA Cup, double

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No matter which way you spin it, Antonio Conte‘s first season in the Premier League is already a successful one — perhaps surprisingly so, the degree to which it has been.

[ MORE: Full “Chelsea Champions” reaction, here ]

With that said, Chelsea’s first-year Italian boss isn’t satisfied yet, and he probably won’t be unless his side beats Arsenal in the FA Cup final on May 27 and turns the 2016-17 season into a double-winning campaign — quotes from the BBC:

“That decision changed our season. We had to change and find a new suit for our team. In my mind there was this option to play a 3-4-3 because I knew I had the players to do that.

“We were not lucky, we did a great job. It’s important to rest. It is a great season but now we can win the FA Cup.

“Every game I feel like I have played with my players. I show my passion and my will, my desire to stay with my players in every moment of the game. This is me, I am this.

“In the present, in the past, I stay with my players in positive and negative situations. We won this title together.”