Arsene Wenger will go head-to-head with Pep Guardiola and Manchester City at Wembley next month after his Arsenal team fought back from a goal down against Chelsea to keep him on course to win his first League Cup as the club’s manager.
With Eden Hazard giving Chelsea the lead after just seven minutes following the goal-less Carabao Cup semifinal first leg at Stamford Bridge earlier this month, Arsenal appeared to be heading for yet another disappointment in this competition. But a freak equaliser five minutes later, when Nacho Monreal’s header was deflected in off both Marcos Alonso and Antonio Rudiger, was followed by Granit Xhaka’s 60th-minute strike to seal a 2-1 win on the night and overall on aggregate.
Wenger’s barren run in this competition has lasted throughout his 22-year reign as Gunners manager, with the club failing to lift the League Cup in its many guises since George Graham’s team defeated Sheffield Wednesday in the final in 1993. Arsenal lost to Birmingham City in the 2011 final, extending Wenger’s lengthy wait for success, but next month’s final gives Wenger’s team the opportunity to end City’s hopes of a quadruple at the same time as securing the only domestic trophy to have evaded the Arsenal boss.
For Chelsea, however, Antonio Conte & Co. saw another cup denied them by Arsenal following last season’s FA Cup final defeat against Wenger’s team. The Premier League champions, who will take on Barcelona in the Champions League round of 16, now face Newcastle at home on Sunday in the FA Cup fourth round as they attempt to keep their season alive.
Barkley thrown in at the deep end
It was a tough start for Ross Barkley in a Chelsea shirt with the £15 million signing from Everton thrown in at the deep end as an early first-half substitute at the Emirates.
The 24-year-old, sidelined since last May following surgery on a serious hamstring injury, was given the task of replacing the injured Willian and his first involvement in the game almost saw his night ended after just 30 seconds when he was shoved into the perimeter boards by Laurent Koscielny following a 20-yard sprint that would truly tested his old injury.
Barkley was able to dust himself down after that incident — he was also on the wrong end of a heavy Jack Wilshere challenge — but having started on the left of Chelsea’s front three, he was then switched to the right before being moved into a false nine role by Antonio Conte.
Conte’s constant barking of instructions to Barkley from the touchline was perhaps a sign of things to come for the England midfielder. One of the criticisms levelled against Barkley is that at 24, he has failed to develop the game intelligence that would be expected of a player of his experience. As expected, Conte was onto him following every misplaced pass or failure to track back quickly enough.
Without the necessary fitness under his belt Barkley’s head was probably spinning by the end of the game, one in which failed to influence to any notable extent, but Conte’s attention to detail and demanding nature may just be the making of the man.
This wasn’t the best of starts for Barkley, but it is one on which he can build.
Guardiola can prepare for his first trophy at Man City
Arsenal may have been the victors on the night, but the biggest winner was probably Guardiola. The Man City manager will have been watching Wednesday’s game to scrutinise his team’s opponents in next month’s Carabao Cup final at Wembley, but there will have been little for Guardiola to worry about. Indeed, he may even believe that Arsenal’s victory has spared City from the tougher test of facing Chelsea who, on their day, are more likely to possess the defensive nous to beat the runaway Premier League leaders.
Arsenal will perhaps pose a greater threat from an attacking perspective, even without the departed Alexis Sanchez, but if City are on top of their game, there will only be one winner at Wembley.
So what hope do Arsenal have of winning the League Cup for the first time under Wenger?
They may have added Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to their squad by then and the Borussia Dortmund striker will certainly sharpen Arsenal’s cutting edge alongside Mesut Ozil. If Jonny Evans arrives at the Emirates, he’d be ineligible like the cup-tied Henrikh Mkhitaryan, meaning that Arsenal’s unconvincing defence would have to find a way to keep City’s rampant forward line quiet.
Still, Arsenal defeated Man City in last season’s FA Cup semifinal at Wembley, so they may believe they have a chance. But the odds will be firmly stacked in favour of Guardiola’s tea.
Culled from KweseEspn.