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May 17, 2014

Arsenal trophy drought finally over

LONDON -- Three observations from Arsenal's 3-2 extra time victory over Hull City in the FA Cup final.

1) Archetypal Arsenal

We've seen it all before this season in the big games: the match kicks off and Arsenal don't. They didn't turn up for the first 20 minutes. No one took control in the Arsenal midfield. They were rudderless. The difference here is that Arsenal were not playing a Liverpool side which their rich attacking talent. There was no Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling or Daniel Sturridge.

This was Hull, a team which finished the season down the gears in preparation for this match. A team without the expensively assembled January strikeforce of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic. But again the Gunners froze. Hull went at them with a gameplan and they didn't know how to react to it. The Tigers knew they had found a weakness in the Arsenal defence, hitting the deep ball, often to Alex Bruce and often from set plays, and for the first 15 minutes there was no answer. The impossible became possible in the fourth minute. A deep corner was played to the edge of the area for Tom Huddlestone, whose mis-hit volley fell to the feet of James Chester -- with the central defender finding the bottom corner of Lukasz Fabianski's net with an intelligent flick. And within moments the horror for Arsenal was doubled. The cross came in from the left, it was Bruce who got there first and when his header came back off the post it was Hull's other centre-back, Player of the Season and captain Curtis Davies, who made no mistake to coolly fire home from close range.

The Hull fans were in sheer disbelief; they came here in hope rather than expectation. Now all their dreams were coming true. The Gunners were saved by Santi Cazorla's brilliance, when he curled home a wonderful set-piece. Arsenal hadn't had a kick, the Hull box was an oasis deep into the desert. And Arsenal were desperate. It took a scrappy finish from Laurent Koscielny to bring Arsenal back in level terms in the second half, and while they had been pushing for the leveller, it was hardly a reward they deserved. That was when the game changed, because for the first time Arsenal were truly on the ascendancy. It's how they prefer to play, when the stars can shine and express themselves on the ball without the fear which can grip them so easily. But while Hull made changes to bring on fresh legs as they tired, legs becoming heavier by the moment, the only substitution Wenger made until halftime in extra-time was to replace Lukas Podolski with Yaya Sonogo.

The players may have frozen in the first half; it was as though Wenger did in the second. He had the chance to make more of Hull's clear fatigue, but did nothing. It was fitting that Aaron Ramsey was the player to score the extra-time winner, and get Wenger out of jail. The man who they missed for three crucial months when their title challenge died. A season in 120 minutes. Mikel Arteta may be their captain, but he is no leader. They have no player capable of taking control of a position of adversity and organising them when they are ramshackled. They might have come through this today, but Wenger must fix this area of his team if they are to return to former glories.

2) Drought finally over

To call the nine-year trophy drought an albatross around their neck would be an understatement, so much so that this one game had become central to the future of Arsene Wenger. He may now stay, free of the stigma of endless years without silverware. That Hull have played at Wembley the same number of times as Arsenal since the stadium reopened in 2007 underlines how the Gunners have struggled to overcome what has become a psychological problem for the club as a whole. And this game provided clear parallels with their shock League Cup final defeat to Birmingham City three years ago.

It's become a stick to beat the Gunners with, and Wenger's insistence that finishing in the top four and earning Champions League football represented a trophy of sorts only added to the ridicule. While Arsenal have stagnated, the rest of Europe's high-rollers have flourished. When they won the FA Cup final in 2005, Lionel Messi had only scored one goal for Barcelona -- he's now on 353, Manchester United have won 15 titles, while Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Barcelona have all done the treble. The question now is whether or not this win, even if it was against Hull, can propel Arsenal back to the top table of football not only in name.

That Wenger has suggested the club does not need to spend big on transfers will be groundhog day for Gunners fans who have seen a procession of star players jump ship in search of silverware. Few of those top names have been adequately replaced and while Arsenal topped the Premier League for more days than any other club this season, it was their failure to strengthen in January -- not counting Kim Kallstrom, of course -- which was a key factor in their slip from title contention to a wobble for fourth against Everton. This FA Cup victory, their 11th which draws them level with Manchester United as the most successful club in the history of the competition, can act as a catalyst, but one piece of silverware alone will not ensure they consistently challenge for honours in the future.

3) So near, so far

Hull City were magnificent -- not given a chance by anyone other than the most optimistic of fans. But they came to Wembley, played and showed why they have had the most successful season in their history. For Hull to even be in this position is remarkable, a club that had never even played at Wembley until they beat Bristol City in the Championship playoff final six years ago -- a victory which earned them a first-ever season of top-flight football. The Tigers have since wrestled with financial meltdown to bounce back into the Premier League once again, recording a record points haul this season and reaching the final of the FA Cup, the 57th side to do so. Factor in that before this season Hull had only once even reached the semifinals -- way back in 1930 -- and it underlines the magnitude of the achievement and how far the club has come from the brink of liquidation.

The only other time Hull have reached a professional final was in 1984, when they played Bournemouth in first Associate Members' Cup, now the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. The game was played on their own ground, Boothferry Park -- they still lost. Their best hope of lifting silverware has been the East Riding Senior Cup, against the likes of North Ferriby United, Sculcoates Amateurs and Bridlington Town.

Defeat to the Gunners means Hull will start their debut European campaign in the third qualifying round of the Europa League, with the first match in just 75 days on July 31, over two weeks before they are due to kick off their fourth season as a Premier League club. It's going to bring many new challenges for a club with limited resources, and Steve Bruce is going to have to add to his squad significantly to deal with the pressures of possibly playing in a far-flung Europa League destination on a Thursday night before returning to top-flight action three days later. They have to play four matches just to reach the group stage of the competition before the August transfer window closes. But this is still dreamland for Hull and their fans, who will still be in disbelief when they discover their first Europa League opponents on July 18.

They'll be sinking plenty of the amber nectar in East Yorkshire after what has been a truly outstanding season for a club of meagre resources. Drink it in.