Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said his side were playing with “more clarity” following the transfer of Alexis Sanchez as the Gunners came from behind to beat Chelsea and set up a Carabao Cup final with Manchester City.
After a goalless first leg, Eden Hazard put Chelsea ahead before an own goal from Antonio Rudiger levelled it, and Granit Xhaka’s winner took Arsenal to Wembley.
It came only two days after Sanchez’s drawn-out transfer to Manchester United was completed, with the Gunners getting Henrikh Mkhitaryan in return.
A miserable couple of months for Arsenal has seen them drop to sixth in the Premier League, 23 points behind leaders Manchester City, and lose to Championship Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup.
But now this vital victory keeps them on course to win their fourth trophy in five years – and with it claim the only domestic competition that Arsene Wenger has not won in his 21 years at the club.
“I felt that in January we paid a heavy price for uncertainty in our dressing-room,” said the 68-year-old. “Now we are back with more clarity. We know what we have to do. We can focus on our game.
“We lost a great player in Alexis Sanchez but when a team doesn’t know what’s going on in the dressing room there is less clarity and focus on performances. We know we have to deal with it now.”
The Gunners, bidding to win this competition for the first time since 1993, meet Manchester City in the final at Wembley on 25 February after Pep Guardiola’s side saw off Bristol City in the other semi-final.
A much-needed boost for Arsenal
With supporter unrest at Emirates Stadium growing in recent weeks, the home fans were left fearing the worst after only seven minutes when Tiemoue Bakayoko played the ball into Pedro and he released Hazard, who slotted past David Ospina from 12 yards out.
But rather than collapsing, the Gunners responded with one of their best defensive performances of the season – and gained two slices of luck with their goals – to move into their first League Cup final since 2011.
Chelsea, third in the Premier League and undefeated in 12 matches in all competitions, only managed one more shot on target and Arsenal equalised within five minutes as Nacho Monreal’s header bounced off Marcos Alonso, then Rudiger and into the net.
There was also a touch of fortune about the Gunners’ second as Alexandre Lacazette’s pull-back rebounded off Rudiger and Xhaka pounced from close range.
Arsenal might have added a third but Alex Iwobi’s shot was blocked by the legs of Willy Caballero – however, the miss did not prove costly.
The Gunners, who saw a £43.6m bid for Borussia Dortmund striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rejected earlier on Wednesday, held out to claim the win as they look for their first League Cup success in 25 years.
A long-awaited debut for Barkley
Chelsea’s ongoing pursuit of a target man has seen West Ham’s Andy Carroll, Stoke’s Peter Crouch and ex-Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko all linked with a move to Stamford Bridge in this transfer window.
And with Alvaro Morata out with a back injury, Antonio Conte’s lack of imposing options in attack saw the Blues boss opt for a pacy and diminutive front three of Pedro, Hazard and Willian.
The selection paid off inside seven minutes when Pedro set up Hazard for the game’s first goal, but a hamstring injury suffered by Willian later in the half forced an alteration, with England midfielder Ross Barkley introduced off the bench for his Chelsea debut.
The £15m arrival from Everton was making his first appearance of the season after hamstring surgery but was immediately in the action, first being heavily challenged by Jack Wilshere before escaping a booking after a clumsy foul on Laurent Koscielny.
Barkley started on the left, moved over to the right and later appeared in the middle but could not make an impact and, unsurprisingly after such a lengthy absence, struggled for fitness. However, his late corner did give Rudiger a chance but the German defender headed over.
Without an England appearance since May 2016, Barkley will have a lot of work to do in the second half of the season if he is to force his way into Gareth Southgate’s World Cup plans.
Meanwhile, it was another impressive night for one of Barkley’s rivals for a berth in the England set-up, with Wilshere – no stranger to injury setbacks himself – continuing his fine form in the Arsenal midfield.
‘Barkley has to be more productive’ – analysis
Ex-England midfielder Jermaine Jenas on BBC Radio 5 live:
I gave Chelsea a lot of praise in the first half but they didn’t really open up Arsenal apart from their goal. After that they were a bit stale unless Eden Hazard was on the ball.
I was disappointed with Barkley but we’ve got to give him time. He’s going to have to work something out very quickly. He has to take responsibility. He needs to be more productive, score goals and make things happen and be the player that Chelsea have bought.
Fair play to Arsenal. In the first half I was worried, it wasn’t looking good. A completely different team came out in second half, they got themselves back into the game and I think the better team won.
Chelsea didn’t offer enough or do enough. Most of those Chelsea players can’t look at themselves and say they deserved to win that game. Managers are often stubborn but Arsene Wenger saw his team needed help at half-time. Moving Mohamed Elneny back [into defence] was a stroke of genius.
Man of the match – Nacho Monreal (Arsenal)
Chelsea’s unbeaten run ends – stats
- Arsenal will play in their eighth League Cup final. Only Liverpool (12) and Manchester United (nine) have appeared in more (Aston Villa and Spurs also on eight).
- Chelsea have now lost just twice in their last eight away games versus Arsenal in all competitions (won three, drew four, lost two).
- Eden Hazard has netted three goals in his last two Chelsea games in all competitions, as many as in his previous 14.
- Ross Barkley made his first competitive club appearance in 248 days, since playing against Arsenal at the Emirates with Everton on 21 May, 2017.
- This was Chelsea’s first loss in 13 matches, since a 1-0 defeat by West Ham on 9 December in the Premier League.
‘Happy to take our fans to Wembley’ – what they said
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, speaking to Sky Sports: “In the first half we gave Chelsea too much respect and distance. We were a bit scared to go for it and we suffered from that.
“We were not playing in the right position but we amended that in the second half and took control of the game. We knew we could perform better in the second half and that’s what we did. In the first half we watched them play a bit but we were tighter after the break.
“We have some time to prepare for the final but we are happy to take our fans to Wembley. We’ve been there a few times now and we’re happy to be going again.”
Chelsea coach Antonio Conte told Sky Sports: “My thoughts are there is disappointment for the final result.
“My players must be pleased with their effort, we tried to reach the final, we conceded two goals and we were unlucky, two deflections.
“It is a pity because we had a good run in this competition, it is a pity for me, the players and fans. We started very well, played a good first half and in the second half I saw a lot of balance.
“When there is an injury to one of your best players it is not simple, especially when on the bench the only substitute is Ross Barkley.
“Barkley has a lot of space for improvement, he is working with us only two weeks but for sure today I was forced to make this substitution, but he can improve a lot.”
Arsenal are not in action again until Tuesday, 30 January (19:45 GMT) when they visit the Premier League’s bottom club Swansea. Chelsea host Newcastle in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Sunday, 28 January (13:30 GMT) before a return to Premier League action at home to Bournemouth on Wednesday, 31 January (19:45 GMT).