From Wembley ecstasy, to Championship anonymity. Wigan Athletic have become the first FA Cup winners to be relegated after they ran into an Arsenal team on a mission to Europe.
Wigan went down their way, attacking with verve, playing with spirit, but defending like strangers. For a while they had Arsenal (and relegation rivals Sunderland and Aston Villa) worried. Shaun Maloney levelled Lukasz Podolski's early strike to sent the teams into the break level. But Arsenal could not be denied and Theo Walcott, Podolski again, and Aaron Ramsey scored thrice in eight minutes just after the hour mark to end Wigan's eight-season sojourn in the top flight.
Arsenal now head for Newcastle on Sunday, one win away from guaranteeing a 16th successive shot at the Champions League. Wigan go back to Lancashire for a bitter-sweet homecoming. They, too, have European football next year, but combining Europa League and Championship is going to be a tough ask, especially as their squad will be raided this summer. Both Arsene Wenger and Roberto Martinez suggested they were capable of bouncing straight back but the latter was vague when asked if he would stay to mastermind their return.
Wigan were last relegated in 1993, to the fourth tier. Dave Whelan then arrived to bankroll their climb up the leagues. But a club with wage bill of £40m (£100m less than Arsenal) is always going to be flirting with danger in the top flight. They at least go down with a freshly-lifted trophy. An Arsenal fan would need to be at least of teenage years to remember them winning silverware.
Martinez had gone with the same XI that made Gooners jealous on Saturday. Well though they played then it seemed a risky move for the players would have been drained mentally as well as physically. It was immediately obvious that Arsenal, who not had played for ten days, were fresher in thought and deed. Riding the impetus of their fine spring run they ran at Wigan like starving men at a buffet and could have led within ten minutes. Theo Walcott broke down the right, was given time to pick out a cross, and found Santi Cazorla who ran past the dozing James McArthur to send a diving header just wide.
The reprieve was brief. Another right-wing cross led to a corner and, when Cazorla delivered, Wigan's defence seemed to stand aside, Podolski heading in after the cross had bounced. Joel Robles who had remained on his line, shouted accusingly at Paul Scharner and Antolin Alcaraz who had allowed the ball past them, but it was too late. Wigan trailed.
Arsenal went in search of more but with Wigan dropping deep, blocking their shots and stifling them, they throttled back and allowed Wigan to pass their way back into a game they should have been out of. Midway through the half they created their first opportunity but Laurent Koscielny cleared acrobatically as Arouna Kone threatened to nip a chipped forward ball away from Wojciech Szczesny
The crowd grew restless. Arsenal's passing became more ponderous. It took another set-piece for them to worry Wigan again, Koscielney stabbing wide form Per Mertesacker's near-post flick. At the other end Shaun Maloney, who looks as if he would fit very well into an Arsenal team, began wriggling into spaces and testing opponents. In the 45th minute Mikael Arteta dragged him down, arm-locked-in-arm (thougyh Wenger thought the kick should have gone the other way). Maloney stepped up and curled a superb free-kick around the wall to give the Latics parity. Two minutes later the whistle went and Arsenal sloped off, to boos, though the main vitriol was reserved for referee Mike Dean, a familiar bete noire at the Emirates.
Arsenal had to win. Wigan had to win. So very quickly the game became stretched as both teams raised the tempo and went in search of a winner. Wigan, looking to prey upon Arsenal's growing nerves and frustration - which was being given full voice by the crowd - were first to threaten, Roger Espinoza and Maloney establishing a bridgehead on the edge of the Arsenal box from which Kone played a one-two with McManaman before drawing a sharp save from Szczesny.
Three minutes later it was Robles' turn to stand defiant the Spaniard making a pair of breath-taking saves from Cazorla after Walcott had again opened up Wigan's left flank. The loose ball fell to Tomas Rosicky, who dragged it wide.
The play switched again. Emmerson Boyce, from a similar position to where Ben Watson scored at Wembley, glanced a header goalwards. Lightening did not strike twice. It went over. Minutes later Walcott again raced away, this time going for goal himself. Robles blocked.
The match resembled a basketball game, but on a huge court and without the defensive zoning up. Finally Cazorla went down the flank behind Espinoza - all night Arsenal were clever at attacking the space in behind the wing-backs. He crossed and Walcott, with that devastating turn of speed, beat Alcaraz, Boyce and Robles to the ball. The Emirates exploded with noise of an unfamiliar volume. It was like a Champions League tie - appropriate really, since that was the prize.
Eight minutes later the Emirates, fuming at the break, was delirious with joy. It was all over. First a simple long ball from Szczesny was won by Podolski, who then reacted quickest as Cazorla headed his nod-down forward and chipped Robles. Next Ramsey was sent clear of a square, high line. He drove in towards goal before lashing the ball into the roof of the net.
The contest was done. Martinez stood in the rain as his team battled on to no avail before being generously applauded off by the home support. But Arsenal, last relegated a century ago this year, could have no idea of their pain.
Man of the match Cazorla.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee M Dean (Merseyside).
Attendance 60,068.Reuse content