Story and pictures by Patrick Kelly-Burton
Chelsea and Arsenal will meet on May 27th in the FA Cup final after two thrilling semi-finals on Saturday and Sunday.
The first semi-final kicked off between the front runners in the Premier League. The leaders Chelsea and second-placed Spurs were paired in the draw and produced nothing less than a spectacle on Saturday evening.
Surprisingly, Blues manager Antonio Conte opted to leave out Eden Hazard and Diego Costa from his starting XI. For Spurs, they named a familiar side with the likes of Dele Alli and Harry Kane that’s recently seen them close the gap on Chelsea in the league table to just four points.
Willian, who was preferred to Hazard, opened the scoring for Chelsea after just five minutes. A free-kick struck to the opposing side of Tottenham’s wall deceived goalkeeper Hugo Lloris on its way into the net.
Spurs pulled level with a skillful stooping header from Harry Kane at 18 minutes before Willian grabbed his second from the penalty spot to restore Chelsea’s lead – that, after Son Heung-Min’s needless challenge brought down Victor Moses in the box minutes before half time.
Shortly after the break, Tottenham levelled again, this time through Dele Alli who picked up the PFA Young Player of the Year Award on Sunday. Christian Eriksen provided one of the assists of the season to Alli who latched onto his ball to fire past Thibaut Courtois.
On the hour mark, Hazard and Costa were both introduced and it was the Belgian attacker who crucially put Chelsea back in front with 15 minutes remaining – his strike from just inside the area was driven past a host of Spurs players after initially being headed out from a corner. (3-2).
The game was all but settled just five minutes later – with a thunderbolt strike from Nemanja Matic fired past a helpless Lloris on its way into the top corner to make it 4-2 and book Chelsea’s place in the final.
On Sunday, Arsenal entered a possible all or nothing match with Manchester City – with their top four hopes in the balance, the Gunners were aiming for a third final in four seasons and a chance to redeem silverware in what’s been an underachieving Premier League campaign.
For Manchester City, the FA Cup was also Pep Guardiola’s only chance of winning an honour this season.
Arsenal named an unchanged XI that won 2-1 away at Middlesbrough, which meant starting with the three at the back who impressed at the Riverside Stadium after a dismal turn of form in recent months.
After wrongly having a goal disallowed – replays showing that Leroy Sane’s cross hadn’t gone out of play – it was City that took the lead following a goalless first half . Aaron Ramsey conceded possession on the edge of City’s area to Yaya Toure, whose direct ball over a vastly-vacated Gunners defence allowed Sergio Aguero the space to run in behind and chip past Petr Cech into the far corner.
On 71 minutes, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross was latched onto by the on-rushing Nacho Monreal who smashed home to level the tie at 1-1.
Toure and Fernandinho both had efforts hit the woodwork before Danny Welbeck’s near miss from an acute angle sent the game into a nervous extra time.
Ten minutes into the first period, Alexis Sanchez came up with the death touch that give Arsenal the lead for the first time in what was a pulsating semi-final.
Substitute Fabian Delph could only find the side-netting with a late chance to take the tie to penalties, but it was Arsenal who prevailed into next month’s final – the Gunners could win a record-breaking 13th FA Cup with victory over Chelsea at the end of May.