LONDON (AP) — The only time Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looked uncertain was when it came to collecting the FA Cup.
Two goals from the forward had turned around the final for Arsenal, sealing a 2-1 victory over Chelsea on Saturday in the first cup final to be staged without fans.
The coronavirus restrictions also meant there was no Prince William at Wembley Stadium to hand over the silverware in the royal box.
So Aubameyang had to pick up the cup himself on the field as captain. Taking the base as well, no wonder Aubameyang dropped it.
“I saw him walking with the bottom bit attached,” Arsenal defender Rob Holding said, “and I was like, ‘You need to take that off!’”
The cup was soon raised aloft, with gold streamer showering the Arsenal squad in a mostly-empty 90,000-capacity stadium after the 139th final of the world’s oldest football competition.
“He needs more experience with trophies, we can get him more used to that,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said. “He knows what I think about him. I want to build the squad around him. I think he wants to stay and it is just about getting the deal done.”
That is no certainty, with Aubameyang yet to commit to staying beyond the end of his contract next year.
“I am really not thinking about this,” he said.
Winning the record-extending 14th FA Cup does at least give Arsenal a spot in the Europa League, after missing out on qualifying through the Premier League after an eighth-place finish.
“The journey has been long,” Aubameyang said. “But today we enjoy it.”
A much longer journey than expected.
A competition that began on Aug. 9, 2019, featuring teams from ninth and 10th tiers, ended later than it had ever done before — two months after the final was scheduled.
Never before had the FA Cup final been staged in August. And never before without fans.
When the team buses arrived, just one man in an Arsenal supporter was singing by the entrance.
Inside the stadium, not even the traditional cup final anthem — “Abide With Me” — was sung live. Instead a pre-recorded version was played out, dedicated to the victims of COVID-19 and racial injustice and performed by Emeli Sande on the stadium roof.
“Love Justice Unity” appeared on the big screen on the stadium exterior that looks down Wembley Way where the only crowds were heading into the shopping mall.
Supporters were still heard inside Wembley before kickoff when an amalgamation of mental health conversations filled the silence at this final named after the Heads Up initiative spearheaded by Prince William, the FA president.
Not even the second-in-line to the British throne could secure a ticket to Wembley with the capacity limited to a few hundred, including players, club executives, media and medics. Instead the prince held a viewing party on the lawn of Sandringham House.
“I’m thinking 2-1 Arsenal,” he said before the match.
How right he was.
Chelsea’s celebrations were short-lived.
It had been the dream start for Christian Pulisic, who has been a revelation since the three-month shutdown of football ended in June.
Set up by Olivier Giroud’s back-heeled flick, Pulisic slotted in from close range after five minutes for his 11th goal in all competitions. The American emulated compatriot Carli Lloyd, who netted in the Women’s FA Cup final in 2017 for Manchester City.
While Lloyd got to pick up the trophy after a 4-1 victory over Birmingham, this showpiece ended in agony for Pulisic.
Pulisic pulled up a minute into the second half with a hamstring injury, shouting in pain. He managed a shot before going down clutching his right knee. He had to be helped off the pitch, with support either side while he grimaced.
By that time Arsenal was already level.
Aubameyang had been dragged down by Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta before equalizing from the penalty spot in the 28th minute.
A year into this pandemic-disrupted, longest-ever English season, Azpilicueta hobbled off injured in tears before halftime.
With Chelsea unsettled by the injuries to Azpilicueta and Pulisic, Arsenal took control and Aubameyang chipped goalkeeper Willy Caballero from close range in the 67th.
“We allowed him in easily,” Chelsea manager Frank Lampard said. “He is a top-class player and the second goal is the sort of speed and quality from a player of his level. Moments like that from Aubameyang obviously finish you off.”
It not only sealed Arsenal’s fourth FA Cup in seven seasons but a place in the Europa League, having only finished eighth in the Premier League.
Chelsea’s hopes of forcing the game into extra time were dealt a blow when Mateo Kovacic received a second yellow card in the 73rd after softly catching Granit Xhaka. Chelsea finished with nine men in stoppage time when Pedro was forced off with a shoulder injury.
Lampard can still complete his first season as Chelsea manager by lifting a trophy but it would require the west London club first overturning a 3-0 deficit against Bayern Munich in the Champions League last-16 next Saturday.
“I can’t criticize the players in their approach or desire to win the game,” Lampard said. “We didn’t play well enough.”
But in only his 28th game in charge of Arsenal, Arteta won the FA Cup — just as he did as a player in 2014 and 2015.
“It was a lot of faith to bring me here and rebuild something special,” said Arteta, who replaced Unai Emery in December. “Hopefully we made the fans proud.”
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