Arsenal started the post-Alexis Sanchez era in style on Wednesday, coming from behind to beat Chelsea 2-1 on aggregate and set up a mouthwatering League Cup final against Premier League leaders Manchester City.
Pep Guardiola’s City reached the Wembley showpiece the previous evening by beating Championship side Bristol City 3-2 in the second leg of their tie and 5-3 over the two legs, staying on course for an unprecedented quadruple.
After a goalless first leg, the visitors took an early lead at the Emirates through Eden Hazard but Arsenal were level soon afterwards via a bizarre Antonio Rudiger own goal and scored the winner in the second half through Granit Xhaka.
Arsene Wenger has an outstanding record in the FA Cup with Arsenal but in more than 21 years in the job he has never won the League Cup, which he has often used to blood young players.
Guardiola on the other hand will be desperate to claim the first silverware of his time in charge at City, who are chasing glory on four fronts.
Wenger was unable to field the cup-tied Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who joined the club from Manchester United earlier this week in a swap deal with Sanchez moving in the other direction while Ross Barkley made his debut for Chelsea as a first-half substitute.
“In the first half we gave Chelsea too much respect and distance. We were a bit scared to go for it and we suffered from that,” said Wenger.
“We were not playing in the right position but we amended that in the second half and took control of the game.”
– Sanchez ‘great player’ –
“We lost a great player in Alexis Sanchez but when a team doesn’t know what’s going on in the dressing room there is less clarity and focus on performances,” he said. “We know we have to deal with it now.”
Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, missing Alvaro Morata and Cesc Fabregas, had the better of the first half and had already had a goal ruled out for offside by the time Hazard opened the scoring in the seventh minute after Pedro released him through the middle.
But Arsenal levelled just minutes later after a bizarre Rudiger own goal. Nacho Monreal headed powerfully goalwards from a corner, which then took a double deflection off Marcos Alonso and then Rudiger, leaving Willy Caballero flat-footed in the Chelsea goal.
Willian was forced off before half an hour and Conte threw on Barkley for his Chelsea debut but the former Everton man struggled to make an impact on the game.
A rejuvenated Arsenal started the second period on the front foot and edged in front in the two-legged tie when Xhaka reacted quickly to prod home a deflected Alexandre Lacazette cross with about half an hour to go.
Alex Iwobi had a golden chance to seal the win, with Caballero making a fine save to keep Chelsea in the tie.
But Conte’s men, lacking a cutting edge, could not find the inspiration they needed to take the game into extra-time and Arsenal held on to claim a deserved victory.
It was the fifth time the clubs had met this season, with all four matches ending in draws, including 0-0 in the first leg of this tie.
The win is a major boost for Wenger in a week when the club, with a battle on their hands to qualify for the Champions League, lost Sanchez, arguably their most devastating attacking player.
Defeat for Conte continues his miserable record as a manager of never winning a cup despite league success with both Juventus and Chelsea.
“My thoughts are disappointment for the final result,” said Conte. “I think my players must be pleased with their effort, we tried to reach the final, we conceded two goals and we were unlucky, two deflections.
“It is a pity because we had a good run in this competition, it is a pity for me, the players and fans,” added the Italian.
The final takes place at Wembley on February 25.