WEMBLEY STADIUM, LONDON—Arsenal’s infamous nine-year trophy drought is finally over after the club battled back from two goals down to beat Hull City 3-2 in the FA Cup final on Saturday.
They needed extra-time to do it, however. Arsene Wenger’s side conceded twice in the opening seven minutes, thanks to strikes from defenders James Chester and Curtis Davies, but fought their way back into the game at Wembley and completed the comeback in the 109th minute—Aaron Ramsey finally finding the target after a litany of earlier misses to spark wild celebrations in one half of Wembley.
Santi Cazorla had earlier completed a frantic opening 15 minutes with a sublime free-kick to make it 2-1, before Laurent Koscielny beat Allan McGregor from close range with 20 minutes remaining to ultimately send the game into extra-time.
Arsenal rode their luck in the closing minutes, substitute Sone Aluko nearly finding the net from out wide after Lukasz Fabianski had rushed recklessly from his line, but held on to lift their first trophy since they won the same competition on penalties in 2005.
Afterwards, Wenger told ITV:
We wanted to make history tonight and win the game and we did that in both ways—how not to start the Cup final and how to come back.
I think it was a turning point in the life time of this team—to know they can win in that way was really important today.
It would have been terrible [to lose] but we came back. I've praised the spirit of this team and they showed that today.
Arsenal, the clear favourites going into the match, named a near full-strength side—bar goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, who retained his place ahead of usual No. 1 Wojciech Szczesny having played in Arsenal’s entire run to the final.
Hull, meanwhile, seemed to select a side that embraced their status as underdogs—Steve Bruce opting for what was effectively a 5-4-1 system, with Liam Rosenior and Ahmed Elmohamady playing as wing-backs, and Matty Fryatt the side’s only recognised striker.
If nerves are to be expected on the big occasion, then they certainly did not come from Hull. Despite their ostensibly defensive setup, the Tigers were ahead inside three minutes having enjoyed almost all the possession prior to that.
The goal was perhaps slightly fortuitous, but it sparked the game into life. Elmohamady’s decision to send a long corner to the unmarked Tom Huddlestone at the edge of the area was a clever one, but they appeared to be little imminent danger as the ex-Tottenham player’s first-time volley appeared to be arrowing well wide of goal. But there was Chester alone in space, the defender adjusting his feet to send the ball curling around Lukas Fabianski’s reach and inside the far post.
Arsenal had not conceded once in the two Premier League meetings between the sides this season, yet four minutes later they found themselves two adrift. Stephen Quinn evaded Cazorla down the right and put in a dangerous cross for Alex Bruce, one the defender met awkwardly, failing to get a perfect contact.
Nevertheless, his header bounced up off the turf, hit the post and, with Fabianski still sprawled across the floor, fell perfectly into the path of Davies for the captain to drive home.
Wenger, who had already been looking on with barely concealed disdain, could only throw up his hands in despair at the awful start his side had made.
Bruce nearly had one himself minutes later—Kieran Gibbs clearing from under his crossbar—as the Gunners continued to struggle from set-pieces.
Their first chance would come from such a situation, however, and Cazorla would make the most of it to pull his side into the contest. Bruce this time was the culprit, fouling the Spaniard when he had little need to, and the diminutive playmaker punished him to the fullest extent—powering the free-kick past McGregor from 25 yards.
This time it was Steve Bruce, standing on the edge of his technical area, who was left to blow his cheeks out in exasperation.
Suddenly the momentum swung completely and it was Arsenal creating all the chances. Mesut Ozil whiffed at a glorious opening six yards out, before Giroud saw a shot blocked and Podolski had a rasping drive deflected narrowly over.
Eventually, belatedly, Hull flattened their backline and compacted their midfield, robbing Arsenal of the space around the area to manufacture clear sights of goal. The one further chance Arsenal did create prior to half-time was entirely of Hull’s making: the pirouetting Stephen Quinn getting robbed by Giroud on the edge of his own area, but the Frenchman was unable to find Podolski with his quick ball across goal.
Almost inevitably, the second half did not start as dramatically as the first had, with Huddlestone’s 30-yard drive 10 minutes after the restart the first moment of note. The midfielder was somewhat lucky moments later, receiving no punishment after pulling Giroud down by his neck in the box.
Wenger threw on Yaya Sanogo for Podolski on the hour-mark, giving his side 30 minutes with two strikers to target. Hull reacted, but only through necessity: Bruce Jr. forced off with an injury as Paul McShane stepped into the cauldron.
Arsenal duly ramped up the pressure, and within 10 minutes they were finally back on terms. Cazorla, who had been denied a good penalty claim moments earlier, floated in a dangerous corner and, after the ball had rebounded off Giroud and Sagna, Koscielny turned and beat McGregor from six yards out.
Suddenly it was all Arsenal, with Ramsey increasingly influential in spreading the ball around in midfield. The Gunners should have completed their comeback in the 80th minute, but Kieran Gibbs conspired to flash over from seven yards out after good work from the bustling Sanogo.
Bar a good save from McGregor to deny Giroud, that was the last real chance to avoid the additional agony on extra-time.
Arsenal continued to push forward in extra-time, with Hull looking to strike quickly on the break through the pace of Sone Aluko, who had been a late substitute in normal time.
Arsenal continued to go close: Giroud cannoning a towering header off the crossbar, before Ramsey snatched at the sort of chance he would usually hit the target with. As the chances rained down and the shots flashed wide—Giroud again, Ramsey, Cazorla—Hull were hanging on.
Delighted for Wenger. He has his faults, lacks pragmatism in times, but he deserves that trophy more than anyone.— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) May 17, 2014
After the turnaround, however, their grip finally slipped. Arsenal’s play around the box had become sloppier and more tired, but eventually everything came together—Giroud backheeling into the path of Ramsey for the midfielder to finally caress the ball home.
"I get emotional thinking about it," the midfielder, who was named Man of the Match, said to ITV at full-time. "We have conceded early in lots of big games this season, but we showed great strength of character to come back and to score the winner is something I have dreamed off.
"This one is for the manager and the fans who have already believed in us, even when things have not gone well for us."
With 11 minutes to see out, Arsenal were relatively comfortable bar one moment of extreme panic—when Mertesacker’s slip allowed Aluko to beat the onrushing Fabianski to the ball, but the winger’s curling attempt from the left-flank did not quite find the target as a relieved Gibbs shepherded it clear.
With minutes left Sanogo then nearly clinched matters following some clever close-control in the box, but ultimately it was left to Fabianski to see out time as the red half of the stadium went wild.
"When they got tired they still had the quality," Davies told ITV. "We gave everything but we are left feeling flat. It was a hard game to throw away from 2-0 up but that's what we did. I'd sooner have no plaudits and win, than have the plaudits and not be getting a medal."
It was Arsenal receiving both. For Wenger, with his contract up in the summer, it was a timely moment of vindication.
The Frenchman added: "I always said my future doesn't depend on this, but I always wanted to stay."