May 10, 2002

Breaking the System with Dimitri Islam

At the highest level, great football matches oftentimes come down to one and only one thing: moments of brilliance. Be it a scathing run, a perfect free kick, or energizing build-up play, these scarce moments often bring one team glory and another dejection. Last Saturday in the FA Cup Final, Arsenal had that moment of brilliance, and it sent Chelsea home packing.

Well, check that. Arsenal did not have one moment of brilliance. They had two.

In many circumstances, these moments spring from unlikely sources. For all Michael Owen's current skill, who would have thought that he was capable of making that amazing run against Argentina in France '98? Or what about Zidane's two wonderful headers against mighty Brazil?

Chelsea was probably asking themselves those questions as Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour thundered down the pitch, taking advantage of the counter-attack opportunity. Undoubtedly, Parlour is a rock for Arsenal, but he's more known for his physical play (multiple yellow and red cards—and he'll get more), then his sublime finishing. Nevertheless, in a relatively tight FA Cup final, there was Parlour, streaking towards the penalty area, seemingly looking to send another Arsenal player in to score.

Except Parlour never passed the ball.

Instead, Parlour carried the ball even farther down the field. One touch, then another, and then…an absolutely magnificent shot. Rocketing past a flailing Chelsea keeper, the ball caught nothing but the back of the net.

And one moment of brilliance erupted from one of the more unlikely sources on the pitch.

Up until that point, Chelsea seemed to be playing well. Sure, Arsenal had a few chances, but Chelsea defended well, and they looked to attack too. Frenchmen Marcel Desailly and Emmanuel Petit appeared strong and prepared for the challenge. Chelsea's midfield looked to move up, and they certainly did not wither under the pressure.

Of course, Chelsea's star striker, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, was not up to full speed. And make no mistake, Chelsea sorely missed Hasselbaink's ability to push forward with venom and pace. Hasselbaink looked to be running at maybe half his normal speed for the entire match, and it came as no surprise when Gianfranco Zola came on to replace Hasselbaink in the 68th minute. This change indicated that perhaps Chelsea would proceed with renewed vigor, with the aid of an Italian who knows virtually every trick in the book.

The FA Cup, however, does not always follow strategy. While many expected Zola to spark Chelsea, two minutes after the substitution, Parlour went sprinting down the other way, and his goal proved to be the winner on the day.

Despite the one-goal cushion, Arsenal was not finished. In the 80th minute, the uncanny Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg surged forward again for Arsenal. Then, taking a page from Dennis Bergkamp's book, Ljungberg curled a beautiful shot past Carlo Cudicini—who, at this point, must have been cursing his luck.

Ljungberg, currently on top of the world and as dangerous as any other player in the Premiership, roared in delight. At this point in the match, Arsenal knew that the FA Cup was finally theirs once again.

In a tight game, these moments of brilliance separate one team from another. Chelsea certainly deserves credit—they played well, and they never gave up a glaringly open chance. Chelsea marked tightly, and Arsenal seemed to have trouble against the stingy Blues' back line. Nevertheless, Parlour and Ljungberg rose to the occasion, and their respective strikes were nothing short of brilliant.

Looking back on the match, both Parlour's hit and Ljungberg's curler were really nothing more than half-chances. In numerous instances, shots from that range go wide or meet nothing but the inviting hands of the goalkeeper. Ljungberg and Parlour did not have easy shots from inside the penalty area. Moreover, neither players' attempt was a simple touch-in or anything of that sort.

No, Parlour and Ljungberg's chances called for a little something more. Despite the daunting nature of the task, both players took their chances with poise and cool composure.

Surely, many must now feel some sadness for Chelsea. The team that always promises so much once again falls short. After an admittedly disappointing campaign in England, one that saw Chelsea drop to fifth in the table, an FA Cup victory would have been some consolation to the Blues' faithful. Unfortunately, Arsenal just didn't cooperate.

Instead, Arsenal finished the match with authority and style. The end result: two moments of brilliance for the Gunners, and a trophy to add to their quickly growing trophy case.