With the regular domestic season concluded in England, there is still one match yet to play, as Arsenal meet Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday for the FA Cup final.
It’s a worthy match-up for the English FA’s storied cup; two of English football’s biggest clubs going head-to-head for the final remaining piece of unclaimed silverware on the table this season. Recently crowned Premier League champions, Chelsea are undoubtedly the favorites. Although of the two, Arsenal have the stronger pedigree in this competition, having won the Cup 12 times, six of which have come during the tenure of manager Arsene Wenger.
But the Gunners head into Saturday’s clash as something of a rag-tag outfit. Despite winning seven out of eight games in the final stretch of the season, Arsenal finished outside of the top four for the first time during Wenger’s time in North London. Facing Europa League football next fall, the FA Cup represents Wenger’s last chance to attach some semblance of success to a season some still suspect may be the Frenchman’s last at the club.
Meanwhile, the North Londoners are besot by injuries on the defensive end of the park. The Gunners now face the prospect of trying to contain the likes of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard without Gabriel Paulista (knee ligament) and Shkodran Mustafi (concussion). Laurent Koscielny was shown a red card last weekend against Everton and will be suspended.
The defensive labor shortage means that Per Mertesacker is likely to get the start. The towering German center back came on as a sub against Everton, playing his first competitive football in over a year. Whether Mertesacker plays or not may depend on whether Wenger sticks with the 3-4-2-1 formation he’s found success with recently, or reverts to the back four he’s preferred over the years.
Further up the park, the news is better, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez both expected to be fit, despite suffering a hamstring and thigh injury respectively. However, like Wenger, there is a cloud of uncertainty over Sanchez’s future at the club heading into the final. The Chilean has made no secret of his displeasure over Arsenal’s shortcomings and could very well make his final appearance in an Arsenal shirt on Saturday.
Chelsea on the other hand, will arrive at Wembley in much finer fiddle. With the Premier League trophy already added to the silverware in the cabinet at Stamford Bridge, Antonio Conte’s Blues have a strong shot at the club’s first domestic double since 2010 and first FA Cup triumph since 2012.
Despite intermittent pressure from Tottenham, Conte made relatively easy work of winning the title in his first season in English football and will be confident of being able to do one over Arsenal, a team they’ve generally been able to boss during the dozen or so years since Roman Abramovich took over the club.
Flush with confidence and without any notable injuries to speak of, Chelsea are strong favorites on Saturday. Even against a full-strength Arsenal, it would be difficult to find a reason to predict anything other than a Chelsea victory. Conte’s men won 30 games in the league this season and largely managed to avoid injuries to a key group of players that, in addition to Costa and Hazard, includes keeper Thibaut Courtois, defenders Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luis and Gary Cahill, midfielder Nemanja Matic, and PFA Player of the Year, N’Golo Kante.
But Arsenal do have momentum, having closed out the season with a five-game winning streak. They’ve also managed good results against other top teams in the division, beating Manchester City in the Cup semifinals just a couple weeks before beating Man United in the league. They also handed Chelsea one of the just four defeats the Blues suffered in the league this season, albeit, way back in October.
And despite the uncertainty over his future, in Arsene Wenger, the Gunners retain one of the most successful managers in the history of the FA Cup. The Frenchman has won almost as many Cups in his 20 years at Arsenal (six) as Chelsea have in their 112-year history (seven). For all his successes, at Juventus and now at Chelsea, Blues boss Conte has surprisingly little to show in the cup department as a manager.
So while the smart money is certainly on Chelsea, don’t count the Gunners out just yet. Antonio Conte certainly won’t.
Watch the FA Cup final this Saturday, May 27, at 12:30 p.m. EST on FOX.