LONDON, May 27 (Reuters) - Delighted, excited and emotional but also a little stunned, Arsenal’s players danced round the Wembley pitch on Saturday, applauding their fans, while goalscorer Aaron Ramsey urged triumphant manager Arsene Wenger to stay at the club.
They had started their FA Cup final against Premier League champions Chelsea as clear underdogs, after a disappointing season, finishing fifth and missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in Wenger’s nearly 21 years in charge.
An embarrassing 10-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich in the first knockout round of this season’s Champions League prompted renewed calls for the 67-year-old Frenchman to retire.
And by the end of the season the Arsenal squad, as so often in the past, had been wrecked by injury. So it was with a makeshift defence and few expectations from football pundits that on Saturday they faced Antonio Conte’s Chelsea who finished 18 points above them in the league.
“It was a great team performance,” striker Danny Welbeck, who has been sidelined twice with knee injuries at Arsenal, told the BBC. “We stuck in there when it looked like things were against us...It was a game full of surprises.”
A fourth minute goal from Alexis Sanchez and a pinpoint header from Ramsey in the 78th did not tell the whole story of Arsenal’s high tempo 2-1 victory.
Chelsea, so dominant for most of the season, looked at times to have been celebrating their league trophy a little too well and Arsenal pressed and harried them out of the game. Diego Costa’s 76th minute equaliser proved the high point, but the optimism lasted only two minutes.
”I can’t describe this,“ Ramsey gushed. ”It’s been an up and down season. We’ve finished with the FA Cup so it has to be successful.
“I’ve got the winner again. I love this competition. The boys deserve this. I‘m happy for the manager. To get another FA Cup - delighted.”
Wenger said he would meet the Arsenal board on Tuesday to discuss his future. Ramsey told the BBC he had no doubts about what his boss should do.
“Of course I want him to stay at club. He deserves this. We changed the formation and had a lot of success. Fair play to him, he changed the system. Hopefully, he’ll be there next season.”
Welbeck said: “The manager is his own man and he makes his own decision and the board will make the right decision...You can’t read him. You can’t read what Arsene Wenger’s going to do.”
On the pitch Wenger shifted to three at the back towards the end of the season, then lost Laurent Koscielny to suspension, Gabriel to injury and Shkodran Mustafi, who was suffering from concussion. On Saturday he drafted in Per Mertesacker, his captain who had played only 37 minutes of first team football all season because of injury.
Mertesacker and young Rob Holding proved solid and masterly in defence, keeping Costa, the tricky Eden Hazard and Pedro at bay.
Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Welbeck were a constant threat on the break and often made the Chelsea back three look ragged.
Former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, their record goalscorer, praised Arsenal’s desire, courage and work rate.
“The impressive thing about the Arsenal team performance today was off the ball,” Lampard, commentating for the BBC, said.
“They have always been good on the ball with Ozil and Sanchez but off the ball, they looked like they have spent all week in training working out how they are going to press Chelsea,” Lampard said.
“We all know the negative talks around the club and it can’t have been a nice place to be but Arsene Wenger looks like a young kid there and it’s nice to see because he has been under a lot of pressure.” (Editing by Rex Gowar)