Saturday, 30 May 2015

FA Cup Final Preview

Preview | Pre-match conference | Team news

FIFA getting themselves in hot water (about time!) may have deviated minds slightly, but coming into what is arguably in the top five of important matches this decade, there is no doubt where the focus is. The FA Cup may have lost some of its sheen (or a lot, admittedly), but for a season that has been largely underwhelming, provides colossal reason for relief and celebration.

Of course, the pressure on the players and the manager is not nearly as immense as it was last season. Last May's trip to Wembley had so much at stake, the stadium should might as well have had a board outside with a disclaimer for people with heart problems. Arsene Wenger's legacy and the patience of 27 million people was compromised. Had we lost, which at a point seemed increasingly likely, people would have been out on the streets for blood.

Losing to an Aston Villa managed by Tim Sherwood would be ridiculously disheartening, but it won't be as catastrophic as last year could have been. Aside from the obvious inherent pride and hunger to win among the players, manager and supporters, there isn't much at stake. Wenger's future is sealed until 2017 (unless this happens), none of the players are viewing this game as a decider for their Arsenal futures, and if you hadn't noticed, we broke the trophy drought last season. Despite the significance of today, one foot is already into preparing for next season's title challenge.

 However, I'm firmly of the opinion that as long as Arsene Wenger is in charge, a Premier League win is impossible. If his Arsenal failed to grab second away from an unstable United and a City in reckless form, I don't see him overtaking Mourinho over 38 games. Winning an FA Cup and assembling a starcast of Gunners is the closest he can get to the perfect farewell swansong.

Anyway, today's not a day for this argument.

In terms of team news, everybody except Danny Welbeck is fit. Oxlade-Chamberlain's run out against West Brom means that there is a likely chance he will be involved, if not fit enough to start. The vast availability for Wenger comes with its problems of leaving some out; a really good problem, in hindsight.

The reasons for and against starting Szczesny in goal are so varied and so many that Wenger might as well go all Harvey Dent and decide it on the toss of a coin. As such, I hope he starts Szczesny. Leaving him out of last season's finale at the expense of a goalkeeper who was a definite goner was unfair toward him. Szczesny's been at Arsenal for around nine years - he's lived the trophy drought as painfully as we have. He deserves to earn a trophy. In addition, it would ensure that Wenger's newfound protocol of playing a "cup keeper" in every game remains intact.

The back four of Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal should pick itself, but it's the midfield trio that could provide another conundrum. Should Wenger assume that Villa will set up to play pragmatic football, and play two of Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla in central midfield, dropping Coquelin altogether? Or should he be a bit proactive himself by starting Coquelin, and substituting him if it becomes clear that Villa are looking for little more than soaking the heat?

I hope it's the latter - playing two attack-minded midfielders in front of our back four could be perfect for someone like Fabian Delph. Even so, there's wiggle room for understanding even if Wenger opts for a more courageous Ramsey-Wilshere duo instead.

And then there's the question of who partners Coquelin, assuming he starts. The more obvious answer seems to be Santi Cazorla, with Ramsey playing on the right. I really hope that's not the case - Ramsey is not capable of giving Arsenal width or protection on the wing. Wilshere is marginally better but he's also hardly favourable. It's time for Wenger to be ruthless and drop either one of Ramsey or Cazorla for a player offering width. As much as it pains me to say it I hope it's Santi, because he doesn't have the energy to be buzzing for all 90 minutes, or a possible 120.

Come to think of it, Mesut Ozil seems the only certain starter in midfield today.

Alexis Sanchez should occupy the left flank with hopefully Theo Walcott and not a central midfielder on the right, which leaves Olivier Giroud to play as the lone striker. I really hope he has a good game today, because he doesn't seem to cut it under pressure. Thierry Henry was marginally right about him when he said Arsenal need better. Giroud has a fantastic work ethic and hunger, but he's still pretty second rate. It's time for him to up his game when it counts.

While I'd fancy a more Szczesny - Bellerin - Mertesacker - Koscielny - Monreal - Coquelin - Ramsey - Ozil - Walcott - Sanchez - Giroud lineup, I suspect Wenger will instead find a way to fit Cazorla in, at the probable expense of Theo. Don't forget that the coin toss means Ospina has a 50% chance to start too!

To be honest, back in October if I was told that Arsenal would finish third and win the FA Cup I'd have jumped on it the same way James Franco did when he saw a puddle of muddy water (muddle?) in 127 Hours. I know it's underachieving compared to the lofty ambitions we had back in August, but we've had way worse falls from expectations before (read 2010/11).

It's debatable whether we've made progress or not this season, but there'd be little debate we've gone backwards if we lose today. While my opinion that Wenger may never win major honours again stands, FA Cups such as these stall the departures of the world class we do have at Arsenal. They need to believe that Arsenal is the place to be if we're hoping for post-Wenger success. They won't stick around if the club isn't winning things or, at least, competing for them.

Come to think of it, there are stakes for today. If we want to mount a sustained Premier League challenge for tomorrow, we need to secure this win today. If we want to make our real rivals Chelsea uneasy, we must win today. If we want to (at least) restore an illusion of genuine competition, we must win today.

If we want to justify Arsenal's illustrious and staggering history of accolades, we must win today.

Come on you Gunners - and Gooners. Make today special.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]

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