Chelsea are in with a fighting chance of returning to Wembley for a second successive season - though they may never know how. Comprehensively outplayed by Arsenal, almost to the same embarrassing degree as they were by Manchester United when removed from the FA Cup earlier this month, they go to Stamford Bridge in three weeks' time with just a single-goal deficit to correct.
Then, they should have Roberto Di Matteo and Franck Leboeuf available, who missed last night's tie because of international duty, and Dennis Wise fit after injury. But perhaps almost as importantly they will not have their manager, Ruud Gullit, playing. Last night the great Dutchman was almost a liability, sacrilegious though it may be to say so.
Whether it was due to lack of match fitness or just the advancing years, the 35-year-old struggled to survive the pace of an English semi-final. He was at fault for Arsenal's opening goal, punished by a relative upstart from his own country, Mark Overmars. "I blame myself for the goal, but I get the blame for everything if we lose," Gullit admitted, and he had the good sense to move himself out of the dangerous area of defence. But with Dan Petrescu out of sorts and Chelsea short on viable replacements he was obliged to continue in the maelstrom of midfield.
A second goal by Stephen Hughes a minute after half- time looked like the prelude to a runaway success for the Gunners, but by a combination of luckless finishing and the excellence of Ed De Goey in goal Chelsea survived, until rescued by the combative Mark Hughes, the 60th- minute substitute. Cometh the hour, cometh the Welshman and within eight minutes of coming on a powerful close range header from a cross by Gianfranco Zola gave the Blues something to sing about.
"We got out of jail," said Gullit. "Now we're looking forward to the second game. We lacked so much quality with Leboeuf on the French bench and Di Matteo playing for Italy. They were the first two players I bought - the spine of my side. The only disappointed ones are Arsenal, they had the chance to beat us well."
Both sides seemed to have reached this stage of the competition without really trying, judging from some of the selections which Messrs Wenger and Gullit have fielded so far. Now, because both clubs' championship ambitions have withered and, more importantly, the possibility that a place in Europe next season may yet beckon for the winners, they have suddenly decided that the Coca Cola is the real thing after all.
Ironically, both sides found themselves hit by genuine absenteeism last night but it soon became clear who was the more affected. As a result Gullit made his first start since mid November and a sweaty evening awaited him, despite the freezing temperature.
Without Wise and Di Matteo in the heart of their midfield, Chelsea lacked bite and purpose: Arsenal, on the other hand, hardly missed Patrick Vieira at all with young Hughes - preferred to David Platt - having a fine game in midfield.
Arsenal had already hit the bar through a Dennis Bergkamp header by the time they went ahead in the 23rd minute. A minute earlier there had been no one around when De Goey spilled a shot from Hughes, but this time there was someone to pick up the crumbs. Emmanuel Petit aimed a long ball at Chelsea's soft centre and Gullit, failing to find the height to repel it, only succeeded in nodding the ball on for Overmars to pounce for a simple goal.
If a one-goal half-time lead was poor reward for Arsenal's efforts, the situation was soon put right. Within 90 seconds of the restart the French substitute Laurent Charvet found himself on the wrong end of a left wing raid by Arsenal. Nicolas Anelka found Overmars on the overlap and when he cut the ball back from the by-line Hughes was perfectly placed to drive home. It was left to Hughes to distort matters with a goal which could yet see Chelsea meeting last season's fellow FA Cup finalists Middlesbrough in this year's Coca-Cola Cup final.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Manninger; Grimandi (Platt, 85), Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Parlour, Petit, Hughes, Overmars; Bergkamp, Anelka. Substitutes not used: Boa Morte, Lukic (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): De Goey; Sinclair (Vialli, 87), Duberry, Gullit, Clarke; Pestrescu (Charvet, h-t), Lambourde, Newton, Le Saux; Zola, Flo (Hughes, 60).
Referee: M. Bodenham (West Sussex).