I remember a time when the FA Cup final was as big, if not bigger than winning the league title. Not only was it a day out in London for fans of the finalists, but going to Wembley was more than a special occasion. Football fans of all colours would relish the fever the cup final engendered. London would be gripped by an excitement that one had no choice but to revel in. Pubs would be packed to the rafters. And good-natured ribbing and rival chants would fill the air in and around central London.
Nowadays, things are a little different. Wembley isn’t that special anymore, what with both semi-finals also being played there. Nowadays, it’s all about the money, honey! In a bygone day, the last four would battle it out on a neutral ground, one easily accessible to fans of the clubs in each of the semi-finals. Villa Park was an almost permanent fixture for at least one of the semis, having been the venue on 55 occasions. Why? Because it is located almost slap bang in the middle of the country. And also because Aston Villa rarely made it that far in the competition!
Gone are those days, and reminiscing can be a danger if one lets it overtake reality. And the reality is that the FA Cup is now ranked third of the four trophies available to teams in the Premier League. And rather than wallow in ‘what used to be’, we should celebrate what is about to be.
For the first time since 2012, two of the Premier League’s heavyweights are battling it out to be top dog in the Cup. In a strange twist of fate, Arsenal has the opportunity of matching their own record of three victories in four years between, 2002 & 2005. And even stranger is the fact that on both occasions, Manchester United won the title in the third of the four years – 2004 & 2016. So, after back-to-back titles in 2014 & 2015, the Gunners must beat their West London rivals to take some silverware back to the Emirates Stadium and, more importantly, prevent Chelsea from winning their second ‘Double’.
The oldest existing football competition in the world provides the Arsenal with the opportunity to lift the Cup for a record 13th time. Lucky for some, they say, and I certainly hope it turns out to be the case for long-suffering fans from the greater half of North London. The FA Cup is a ‘nice to win’ trophy, but doesn’t do much for true Reds, who want nothing more than to win the league title again.
However, the odds are stacked against them. The central defence has been decimated in recent days, with team captain Laurent Koscielny suspended after his sending off in the game against Everton, Skhodran Mustafi suffering from concussion, and Gabriel on the sidelines after what seems like a long-term injury, also from the Everton game. It never rains, but it chucks down buckets!
So who will man central defence for the Gunners? Enter club captain, and the slowest beanpole in the world, Per Mertesacker – who will probably play only his second game of the season – alongside greenhorn Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal. Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Willian are laughing all the way to Roman Abramovich’s bank; such is the difference in capabilities between the Chelsea attack and the Arsenal central defence. I fear for the Arsenal. I fear Costa making a mockery of Mertesacker on the world stage. I fear Wenger will spit his dummy out in the face of some rough-and-ready tackling from the Blues. I fear a stinging loss in the Cup Final to add to the sting of finishing fifth in the Premier League
If there is one way for Arsenal to win this thing, it is for Aaron Ramsey (who has, in my eyes, re-built his game since his horrific injury some years ago, to be a modern-day Bryan Robson), Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil to come good. Of course, the rest of the team will need to find their chops too, but it’s essential for the creative fulcrum to fire on all cylinders. But Mesut Ozil has flattered to deceive on too many big occasions, either drifting out of the game or worse, not being able to utilise his silky talents and skills to grab the game by the scruff of its neck and drag the Gunners over the finish line. He leaves that to others. And that isn’t quite kosher, especially if you’ve won a World Cup. Ozil must step up. Or find that his market value, already dented, hasn’t crash spectacularly. If you want a big pay hike, Mesut, you’d better earn it, and not rely on your past reputation, as good as it may have been.
Of course, a Plan B of using pace as well might be useful. But Arsene Wenger doesn’t do Plan Bs. He’ll leave it to the talismanic Sanchez to create some magic. That is Plan A, and that’s what it shall remain.
As for Chelsea? It is almost inconceivable to me that Antonio Conte will let the chance of a Double slip. It isn’t in his DNA. He’s a winner, and a fighter. There’ll be no slacking in the Chelsea dressing room, even if Costa is lording it over Mertesacker, as I expect to see happen. Chelsea are just too strong, even with Arsenal at full strength. And only if the God of 13 has his way, will the Gunners triumph. I shall pray.