London (AFP) – Over a year after Per Mertesacker last started for Arsenal, the German defender came in from the cold to provide the inspiration for his side’s dramatic FA Cup final victory over Chelsea on Saturday.
With Arsenal’s defence ravaged by injury and suspension, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger handed Mertesacker his first appearance in the starting line-up for 392 days.
A serious knee injury suffered last year led to a lengthy spell on the sidelines for Mertesacker and when he returned to fitness he was unable to regain his place.
The 32-year-old had played only 37 minutes all season after coming off the bench in last weekend’s win against Everton.
But the absence of Laurent Koscielny, Gabriel and Shkodran Mustafi gave Wenger no option but to end Mertesacker’s exile.
Mertesacker’s previous start was an unremarkable 1-0 victory over Norwich in April 2016 and throwing him back into the team for such a high-stakes encounter against the Premier League champions seemed fraught with danger.
So it was against all expectations that the centre-back emerged as the towering foundation of Arsenal’s 2-1 triumph at Wembley.
Surveying the Arsenal team-sheet before kick-off must have made encouraging viewing for Chelsea’s forwards.
Mertesacker was playing alongside a left-back Nacho Monreal who was converted to centre-back, while youngster Rob Holding was playing in his first major showpiece.
Adding to the sense of potential disaster, the German admitted this week that the final would be the first time he had ever played in the three-man defence which has been Wenger’s preferred formation in recent weeks.
Yet Wenger has been loyal to Mertesacker despite his struggles.
He gave the World Cup winner a new contract earlier in the campaign and was confident enough to hand him the captain’s armband at Wembley.
“The manager backed me up, knowing I was going to be sidelined for more than six months,” Mertesacker said recently.
“Obviously I’m grateful so I want to make sure I try to give something back.”
Mertesacker, now a three-time FA Cup winner, repaid that faith in spades as he threw his body into the line of fire time and again to keep Chelsea at bay.
Allaying his fears that he might not be fit enough to cope with his unexpected return, Mertesacker was immense from start to finish.
In the first half alone he made a handful of crucial interceptions and won countless headers to blunt the physical presence of Chelsea striker Diego Costa.
With Arsenal clinging to the lead given to them by Alexis Sanchez’s early opener, Mertesacker made a string of key second half blocks to deny Costa.
When Costa poached Chelsea’s 76th minute equaliser, it was Mertesacker who almost got the block before the ball deflected in off his foot.
And Aaron Ramsey’s winner moments later ensured Mertesacker would complete his fairytale return by lifting the Cup in front of Arsenal’s jubilant fans.
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