FA Cup final: Chelsea's palpable disinterest casts doubts over their credentials for continued success
After the FA Cup defeat, talk of a Chelsea dominance and a possible dynasty under Conte must take a back seat until their champion players show the hunger and desire characterised by perennial winners.
A little over a fortnight ago, Chelsea were celebrating at the Hawthorns after a 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion that confirmed them as the new champions of England. The sight of their players, who had been playing like a closely-knit unit for most parts of the season, celebrating with an equal amount of unity and bonding would have been particularly encouraging for Chelsea supporters.
The talk that accompanied those scenes at the Hawthorns was of a possible domination, a chance of building a Chelsea dynasty under Antonio Conte. The best of brains in football were busy applying their wits at how The Blues could possibly better that title-winning display. The only way upward that pundits thought Chelsea could go was by becoming one of those teams that are immortalised in the game's history.
The West Londoners still had a FA Cup final to be played, and considering their recent standards, perhaps a FA Cup final to be won. Pre-game, Arsenal weren't considered to be a match for Conte's marauding Blues, and few, including some of the most ardent Arsenal fans, bet against Chelsea doing the double.
But as Liverpool fans would have known the hard way over the years, glorious history in football counts for little even if it might be fairly recent, as it turned out to be in Chelsea's case. The better team on the the day comes out trumps on most occasions in a football game and what took place on Saturday at the New Wembley was no different.
An in-form Arsenal side, hurt by their failure to finish in the Premier League's coveted top four positions, turned up desperate to win. On the other hand, Chelsea despite their manager's repeated claims of their season not being over until the final whistle at Wembley, seemed like a team left with little appetite for more success.
Chelsea had overcome a far stronger opponents than Arsenal in the semi-final in the shape of Tottenham Hotspur and key to that triumph was a quick start to the game fuelled by a hunger to prove a point after a defeat at Old Trafford in their game previous to that.
It served them well in that game despite seeing significantly less amount of the ball as they came up fairly comfortable 4-2 winners in the end.
However, that wasn't the case in the final against Arsenal, as Chelsea were slow off their guard. They lacked the usual zest while pressing their opponent, winning the 50-50 balls in midfield and cramping the opposition for space while defending deep in their own box.
Instead they allowed Arsenal to win all these battles, handing them the early momentum in the game. If there needed to be evidence about a lack of sharpness in Chelsea's play, the first goal was the perfect example. The referee controversially didn't blow his whistle twice, first for a handball from Alexis Sanchez while winning the ball back, and then for an offside as Aaron Ramsey appeared to interfere with the play as Sanchez scored past Thibaut Courtois.
But Chelsea's defending during the entire episode left a lot to be desired. To start with, Victor Moses was particularly carefree in possession to give the ball away cheaply, before David Luiz's weak clearance which allowed Sanchez a chance to win the ball in a dangerous area. To follow that up Chelsea players were slow to react to the referee's decision of not blowing the whistle, letting the Chilean with a fairly straight-forward finish past Courtois.
Playing to the whistle is one of the first rules that a coach instructs his pupils, and the Blues didn't seem to be on their guard at all.
The success of Conte's men this season has been built around their ability to respond when put under pressure. But on Saturday, Chelsea's reaction to going behind was rather subdued. They didn't seem to wake up and get out of their pre-game state, letting Arsenal build on their momentum.
Thanks to some heroic defending from Gary Cahill, neat goalkeeping from Courtois, and the lack of a world-class finisher in the Arsenal ranks, Chelsea managed to stay in the game at half-time. Everyone in the stadium knew the Blues had got out of jail in that first half, and there was a feeling that the Gunners might have to pay for it.
The West Londoners were slightly better in the second half going forward, but remained extremely vulnerable to Arsenal's counter-attacks. Despite a bit of a fightback from the Blues, Arsenal played well enough to always carry a threat in the game.
Chelsea's chances took a significant hit when Moses was sent off after being shown a second yellow card for diving in the penalty area. The Nigerian perhaps had the worst game of the season on Saturday and having got away with one in the semi-final against Tottenham, there was no escaping this time for Moses, who clearly went down in hope.
The introduction of Cesc Fabregas and Willian did make Chelsea more threatening going forward. In the 76th minute, Diego Costa pulled Chelsea level out of nowhere and once again it felt like Conte's men were going to grind out a result.
However, it turned out to be a false dawn as Chelsea conceded straight from the kick-off. Once again their defence switched off, allowing Olivier Giroud to run into the channel and letting him send in a cross that was put away by an unmarked Ramsey, who made a late run in the space between the center-backs.
The Blues' joy was short-lived and deservedly so. They had been second best by a margin on the day, and the 1-1 scoreline largely flattered them.
Ten-man Chelsea threw the kitchen sink at the Gunners, but it was too little, too late. The full-time whistle ended their hopes of claiming a league and cup double, and a truly fantastic season ended on a bad note.
While Arsenal were superior to Chelsea from minute one to ninety, it was the first twenty-five minutes where The Blues lost the game. They didn't start with the intensity that was needed for the game and were never really able to get it out as Arsenal's momentum, combined with a great desire to win kept them at bay.
"Arsenal started very well with great determination. They surprised us a bit, but our first 25 minutes weren't good," Conte rightly pointed out after the game.
This isn't the first occasion where the Chelsea team has been on the beach. When previously at a position of comfort and strength, The Blues have been known to let the intensity drop. The games against Manchester United at Old Trafford and Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in the Premier League are a few examples of that.
After Chelsea won the title in 2015 with almost the same set of players, they didn't have it in them to come back with the same desire to retain their title. So many of their players dropped off during the season which ended in Jose Mourinho's dismissal and a lowly tenth-placed finish.
Failure to turn up on an occasion as big as the FA Cup final doesn't reflect greatly on those players, who had also let the club down last term. Conte and the Chelsea board must take note of their player's tendency to rest on their laurels, and ensure these stars start the next season in the right frame of mind for this Chelsea revolution under Conte to continue.
Losing out on the FA Cup is certainly disappointing for Chelsea, but it doesn't in any way take away what they have achieved this season. Their conquerors on the day would love to swap the FA Cup to be in their shoes right now, and one must not forget the ability of the players Chelsea have at their disposal.
With Champions League football coming up next season, The Blues surely need to strengthen their squad as admitted by Conte in the post-match press conference, but he will take over a squad in much better shape than what his opposite number on Saturday, Arsene Wenger will, if indeed he decides to stay.
However after the FA Cup defeat, the talks of a Chelsea dominance and a possible dynasty under Conte must take a back seat until their champion players show the hunger and desire characterised by perennial winners of the past.
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"I was drugged for 36 years and you can't rid yourself of it overnight," said Wenger. "It is not easy but there came a point where I had to reason with myself. Have I not already had one fight too many?"
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