ARSENAL may have abandoned plans for relocating to Wembley on a permanent basis, but they will take up residence there on 16 May. Victory over a gallant but outclassed Wolves, by virtue of Christopher Wreh's early goal, booked their 13th appearance in the FA Cup final yesterday and enhanced Highbury's hopes of the Double.
Driven on by the indefatigable Patrick Vieira, Arsene Wenger's side dominated the First Division underdogs in a hard-fought semi-final. Yet they were unable to translate possession into clear-cut openings, and were ultimately indebted to the Wolves goalkeeper, Hans Segers, for the mistake that led to Wreh's second winner in the space of six days.
With only 13 minutes gone, Segers shaped confidently to deal with Adrian Williams' back-pass. Given that the Dutchman established his reputation by launching many a Wimbledon attack in the days when the long-ball game ruled at Plough Lane, the Wolves bench must have expected his clearance to sail into the Arsenal half.
Perhaps distracted by Nicolas Anelka, who moved half-heartedly to close him down, Segers instead scuffed his kick down the centre of the pitch. Steve Sedgley had committed the cardinal crime of turning his back on play, and consequently did not see Vieira surging on to the ball.
The Frenchman ran at the heart of the defence, gliding past Dean Richards' attempted tackle. On reaching the edge of the penalty area, he selflessly rolled a perfectly weighted pass to Wreh on his right. The Liberian, standing in for the suspended Dennis Bergkamp, side-footed a diagonal shot beyond Segers for only his third goal since arriving from Monaco last summer.
As the Wolves' manager, Mark McGhee, admitted, the timing of the breakthrough delivered a serious blow to their chances of repeating the quarter-final success over Leeds. "It took the wind out of our sails," he said. "Our real chance was keeping it tight at nil-nil and then maybe sneaking it in the second half or extra time."
McGhee was quick to play down criticism of Segers, Wolves' saviour at Elland Road with a last-minute penalty stop. The ball had travelled 40 yards, he said, and ought to have been dealt with by Sedgley. "We feel as if we gifted them the game," McGhee said.
His analysis did something of a disservice to Arsenal. In the first half, at least, the Premiership outfit lapped up a succession of long, aimless balls driven in the general direction of Wolves' front runners and proceeded to build constructively through Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Ray Parlour. However, the second goal they needed to kill the tie did not materialise, and it was immediately apparent after the interval that Wolves would not go without a struggle.
Where previously Steve Claridge had ploughed a lone furrow, there was suddenly support from Paul Simpson and Don Goodman. Simpson forced David Seaman into his first significant save within two minutes, while Goodman narrowly failed to convert the loose ball after the England keeper made a hash of a cross by the increasingly influential Steve Froggatt.
It was inconceivable, especially after the departure of Martin Keown with a badly cut eyelid, that Steve Bull would not be thrown into the fray. His appearance for the last 20 minutes instantly prompted Wolves' best opportunity, only for Claridge to be betrayed by a poor touch.
That moment of panic clearly reminded Arsenal of the fragility of their advantage. They finished strongly, with substitutes Stephen Hughes and David Platt both going close from long range and Marc Overmars unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty when he tumbled under Williams' challenge.
Wenger, having justifiably paid tribute to Vieira's prodigious efforts, conceded that he had endured "20 minutes of concern" during which his team "looked tired". But having survived three replays and two penalty shoot-outs on the way to Villa Park, this almost qualified as a smooth passage.
Before they can turn their attentions to Wembley, there is the small matter of eight Premiership matches in four weeks. Most, if not all, will have to be won, although after this fifth consecutive single-goal triumph, it would be folly to bet against them.
Talking of gambling, Segers is about to publish a book on his alleged part in the match-fixing scam which ended in his acquittal last summer. The title is Final Score. Final Score? One-nil to the Arsenal.
Goal: Wreh (13) 1-0.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Grimandi, Adams, Keown (Bould, 48), Winterburn; Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars; Anelka (Platt, 84), Wreh (Hughes, 75). Substitutes not used: Boa Morte, Manninger (gk).
Wolverhampton Wanderers (3-4-3): Segers; Williams, Curle, Richards; Muscat (Keane, 84), Robinson (Slater, 71), Sedgley, Froggatt; Goodman (Bull, 69), Claridge, Simpson. Substitutes not used: Naylor, Stowell (gk).
Referee: S. Lodge (Barnsley).
Bookings: Arsenal: Grimandi, Parlour. Wolves: Williams.
Man of the match Vieira.
Attendance: 39,372.Reuse content