"Coming second," said the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, pointedly as he savoured Arsenal's FA Cup triumph on Saturday, "can become a habit, especially when such a big club as Manchester United is coming first."
Wenger's observation was two-pronged. Footballers, inevitably given their regimented professional lives, are creatures of habit as well as prisoners of confidence. Some, also are lazy.
In individuals this laziness is highlighted by those big-names who litter reserve teams, spurning the challenge offered by a move in order to stay in the comfort zone. Having acquired the Ferrari, the swimming pool and the model wife they have lost the inclination to put their limbs on the line, preferring to pick up the weekly five-figure cheque without sweat or risk.
Teams, too, can settle, whether it be for mid-table security or the belief that, in simply competing for honours, they have met their obligation. Last summer, after Arsenal finished second to Manchester United for the third season in succession, Wenger wondered if his team were settling. The accountants were happy, coming second meant a place in the Champions' League. Maybe the players, who also collected runners-up medals in the Uefa and FA cups, were as well. After all, there was no shame in coming second to a club of Manchester United's resources. "You think," added the manager. "Do you push everybody a little bit more? Do you make sure you are not happy being second."
Wenger and his staff pushed, and found an open door. He said: "The players really wanted to win. We had a very young team, but we have been together for a few years now and mentally there is great solidarity. We were confronted with many difficult situations such as injuries. Every time the team responded."
Sometimes this season, Arsenal's frustration at being perpetual runners-up has got the better of them with Thierry Henry the most prone to be affected. There was a danger of that on Saturday as Chelsea unexpectedly emerged from a spoiling first half to become the better team in the third quarter, creating a series of half-chances. That is when Wenger's decision to play Tony Adams bore fruit. "He has patience," said Wenger. "He organises us."
Adams, like David Seaman, the unlikely match-winner Ray Parlour, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira, were in the 1998 Double-winning team. Arsenal's other six starters, surprisingly, had never won silverware with the club. "The first trophy is important," said Wenger. "It is a great relief. You can play well, play well, play well but you are not happy if you do not win a trophy."
Ranieri would doubtless agree. He has suggested, not without reason, that Valencia's march to the 2000 Champions' League final, and towards this season's La Liga title, began when the Spanish club won the King's Cup (Spain's FA Cup) under him. A victory for Chelsea on Saturday, though it is only two seasons since Gianluca Vialli's team won the FA Cup, might have provided a similar platform. It would have eased the considerable pressure on him and his rebuilt team.
"We have finished short of my objectives, but managers always put the target high and we came very near," he said. "We did better than last year and we have improved our consistency. But not enough."
Indeed. Three years ago Chelsea finished third in the Premiership under Vialli, four points off the summit. This morning they are 17 points adrift of Arsenal with the four Champions' League qualifying places well out of reach.
Yet Ranieri had reason to feel encouraged. Though Bergkamp and Lauren might have headed Arsenal into the lead from the clearest chances of a disappointing, foul-ridden first-half Chelsea deserved half-time parity. Had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink been fit, instead of obviously carrying a calf injury, they might have been ahead.
Though Henry might have scored immediately after the break Chelsea then gained a surprising dominance. With Patrick Vieira's distracted performance fuelling rumours of an impending move to Spain, Frank Lampard and Emmanuel Petit, passing neatly, controlled midfield. Jesper Gronkjaer gave the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, reason to ponder as he tormented Ashley Cole. Le Saux, had it not been for a rash second-minute tackle on Lauren, would have done likewise with an otherwise accomplished performance. Marcel Desailly showed that, when motivated, he remains the supreme defender.
With Hasselbaink hobbled, clear chances continued to elude Chelsea. Seaman saved acrobatically from Eidur Gudjohnsen and Le Saux, well-placed but on his right foot, drove over. Belatedly, Ranieri sent on Gianfranco Zola for Hasselbaink. It changed the match, but not the way the Italian had hoped.
Wenger, responding to Chelsea's new shape, moved Sylvain Wiltord to a more central role. The striker had only just blazed wide after being set up by some trickery from Henry. Now he was on hand to receive Adams' pass and release Parlour. With his team-mates' movement creating space, Parlour drove forward 30 yards before rifling a superb shot past Carlo Cudicini.
Eight minutes later, with Cudicini having brilliantly denied Henry, Ljungberg sealed the tie. Taking a pass from Edu around the half-way line he followed Parlour's path. He, at least, received a challenge but shook off John Terry before curling the ball around Cudicini. With Chelsea short of options and puff that was game over.
Having dominated last year's final, but lost, few would begrudge Arsenal their victory. Though Chelsea had the better possession Arsenal created the clearer chances. They now move to Old Trafford where, on Wednesday, the sweetest of draws will give them the title and a record third Double.
"Was this the beginning of a period of hegemony to match that of Manchester United?" Wenger was asked. Torn between pride and caution he said: "We have potential to dominate – but let's first win this championship. Then win it again. That is what the great teams do."
He could have added: "Coming first can also become a habit." The question to be answered over the next few years is whether Arsenal's addiction will prove as enduring as United's.
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 0
Parlour 70, Ljungberg 80
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 73,963
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Lauren, Campbell, Adams, Cole; Wiltord (Keown, 90), Parlour, Vieira, Ljungberg; Bergkamp (Edu, 71), Henry (Kanu, 80). Substitutes not used: Dixon, Wright (gk).
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cudicini; Melchiot (Zenden, 76), Gallas, Desailly, Babayaro (Terry, h/t); Gronkjaer, Lampard, Petit, Le Saux; Gudjohnsen, Hasselbaink (Zola, 67). Substitutes not used: Jokanovic, De Goey (gk).
Referee: M Riley (Leeds).
Booked: Arsenal: Vieira, Henry. Chelsea: Le Saux, Terry, Gudjohnsen.
Man of the match: Adams.Reuse content