FA Cup final preview
Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley could mark the end of one dynasty and the continuation of another which is in its infancy.
If Antonio Conte’s Chelsea win the London derby and claim a Premier League and FA Cup double in his first season as head coach, the Blues could build on the success under the Italian in the years to come.
Defeat for Arsenal would place further scrutiny on the future of manager Arsene Wenger, who is in danger of damaging his legacy by clinging on too long.
The whispers are Wenger will extend the contract which expires this summer and stay. The concern for Gunners supporters is that the status quo will remain.
Arsenal are seeking a third FA Cup in four years, but it would be scant consolation for a growing band of disillusioned Gunners. Win or lose at Wembley, many say it is time for Wenger to go.
It is 15 years since Wenger’s Arsenal won the double in 2001-02 and 13 since they last won the league championship. For the first time in his near 21-year tenure the Gunners missed out on a top-four place and are out of the Champions League next season.
Conte reckons that blow makes Arsenal favourites. The Chelsea boss argues this is their only chance to salvage a lousy season.
Wenger admitted the environment surrounding his players has been “absolutely horrendous”.
“Certainly my personal situation has contributed to that,” said Wenger, following the league season-ending 3-1 win over Everton.
Will the Frenchman be able to rouse his players for one last time in a London derby with silverware at stake?
Chelsea lifted the Premier League title after last Sunday’s season-concluding win over Sunderland, after which celebrations were paused.
The Blues hope to be in possession of the FA Cup for a fifth time in the last 11 seasons, though in the wake of this week’s events in Manchester they cancelled an open-top bus parade.
Arsenal inadvertently helped transform Chelsea’s campaign.
The Blues were trailing 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium on September 24 and Conte sensed something was not right.
He reverted to a 3-4-3 formation in the second half and Chelsea did not look back, winning 13 successive Premier League games – a single-season record only Arsenal have matched.
The Blues beat the Gunners 3-1 at Stamford Bridge on February 4, with a gulf in class evident – never more so than when Eden Hazard tore through Arsenal’s meek defence to score one of the goals of the season.
The Gunners appear likely to have a makeshift defence to face Hazard, Diego Costa and Co at Wembley. The signs are ominous.
Laurent Koscielny offered little resistance at Stamford Bridge and is suspended following his dismissal against Everton.
Gabriel is out injured and Shkodran Mustafi is a doubt with concussion.
Despite Conte implying his side are underdogs, warning his players to be on their guard, many will expect the former Italy and Juventus boss to emulate compatriot and friend Carlo Ancelotti, a double winner in 2009-10 with Chelsea.
Some bookmakers will likely accept bets on John Terry doing “a John Terry” and collecting a FA Cup winners’ medal in full kit despite not playing an active part in proceedings.
It first happened in Munich five years ago when a suspended Terry had to change from lounge suit into full kit, including shin pads, to lift the Champions League trophy.
He repeated the costume change when Chelsea won the Europa League a year later and has since laughed off the criticism from social media which saw his image used on historic occasions of celebration. Whether he plays or watches on – which appears more likely – Terry will care little if he signs off with a 16th major trophy of his career.
ARSENAL’S ROUTE TO THE FINAL
Third round - Preston 1 Arsenal 2
Arsene Wenger’s proud record of never having lost in the third round continued at Deepdale, but not before a scare after Callum Robinson’s early effort had put the Lilywhites ahead at the break. Aaron Ramsey equalised moments after the restart and a replay was on the cards until the 89th minute when Olivier Giroud popped up with a deflected winner.
Fourth round – Southampton 0 Arsenal 5
England international Theo Walcott had a day to remember against his former club, grabbing a hat-trick at St Mary’s. Saints had already booked their place in the EFL Cup final but were unable to build another cup run as Danny Welbeck scored twice inside 22 minutes, his first goals since returning from a lengthy knee injury. From then on it was over to Walcott, who netted in the 35th, 69th and 84th minutes to complete the rout.
Fifth round – Sutton Utd 0 Arsenal 2
Fresh off the back of a 5-1 Champions League thrashing at Bayern Munich, pressure was mounting on Wenger and a giantkilling by non-league Sutton would have ramped things up to fever pitch. But the Frenchman sent out a strong side at Gander Green Lane and picked up a comfortable, if not quite comprehensive, victory. Lucas Perez and Walcott, this time wearing the captain’s armband, grabbed the goals.
Quarter-final – Arsenal 5 Lincoln 0
Another banana skin match-up against the eventual National League champions, who made history under Danny and Nicky Cowley by reaching the last eight of the competition. The fairytale lasted until the 45th minute, when Walcott made the breakthrough, and the second half saw the Gunners load up as Giroud, Ramsey and Alexis Sanchez added to a Luke Waterfall own goal.
Semi-final – Arsenal 1 Man City 1 (Arsenal win 2-1 after extra time)
After being cast as the Goliath in two successive rounds, Arsenal were up against heavyweight opposition at Wembley. For the second time in a week they fielded a new-look back three and came from behind to seal the win. Sergio Aguero put Pep Guardiola’s men ahead with less than half an hour left, but Nacho Monreal pounced to leave the sides tied in normal time. City finished the 90 minutes in the ascendancy but Sanchez, linked with a move to Eastlands, found the net after a goalmouth scramble to guarantee another final for the Gunners.
CHELSEA’S ROUTE TO THE FA CUP FINAL
Third round – Chelsea 4 Peterborough 1
A routine victory for the Blues, notable only for John Terry’s red card on his return to the starting XI for the first time in three months. By the time the veteran was given his marching orders his side were already 3-0 up through Pedro, Michy Batshuayi and Willian. Tom Nichols got one back for the League One side but Pedro’s second restored the handsome margin.
Fourth round – Chelsea 4 Brentford 0
Branislav Ivanovic came off the bench and hit the target in what would be his final game for the club before departing for Zenit St Petersburg. Despite fielding a handful of peripheral players, Conte’s side were far too good for their Championship visitors. As in the previous match Pedro, Batshuayi and Willian all got their names on the scoresheet.
Fifth round – Wolves 0 Chelsea 2
Pedro notched for the third FA Cup tie in a row as Wolves failed to add Chelsea to their earlier Premier League scalps of Stoke and Liverpool. The former Barcelona player broke the deadlock after 65 minutes and it was not until Diego Costa claimed Chelsea’s second moments from the end that the game was made safe.
Quarter-final – Chelsea 1 Man Utd 0
Jose Mourinho returned to the scene of some of his finest managerial triumphs only to leave beaten and at boiling point. Ander Herrera’s first-half sending off set the tone for an ill-tempered encounter that ended with Conte and Mourinho being separated by officials during a tense exchange. N’golo Kante settled matters on the pitch with his second goal for the London club, extending Chelsea’s winning run at Stamford Bridge to a club record 13 games.
Semi-final – Chelsea 4 Tottenham 2
The Premier League’s top two sides met at Wembley and it was the table-toppers, rather than their pursuers, who came out on top. The rivals went toe-to-toe in a match-up worthy of the final itself and turned in a memorable 90 minutes at headquarters. Willian twice put Chelsea ahead only for England pair Harry Kane and Dele Alli to pull Spurs level. Eden Hazard, surprisingly reduced to a substitute’s role, scored the decisive third before Nemanja Matic’s memorable long-ranger sealed it in style.