There’s no doubt Arsenal’s season has been a profound disappointment so far. Based on the money they’ve spent, the quality of the players they have and the expectation levels, to finish outside the top four is an underachievement.
The full consequences of that, and Europa League football, are yet to be seen, but it’s something they have to put on the back burner as they have the chance to make up for that somewhat this weekend in the shape of the FA Cup.
For some, it’s a tournament that has completely lost its lustre, but the reality is that it’s a final and there’s a trophy to play for. The money and razzle-dazzle of the Premier League and Champions League have overshadowed the cup in recent years, but as soon as that game kicks off, fans of both Arsenal and Chelsea will be desperate to win.
The league champions are favourites, not just because they’ve proven themselves to be the best team in England over the course of the Premier League campaign, but because the Gunners are facing a massive central defensive crisis.
Having moved to a system of three at back, and having improved their form, losing three centre-halves before the game is far from ideal.
Laurent Koscielny is suspended after a ridiculous challenge on Everton’s Enner Valencia saw him sent off on the final day of the season. Arsenal appealed, because they had nothing to lose, but it was never going to work and the French international will miss out.
In the same game Gabriel picked up a serious knee injury, which will keep him out until August, and there remain massive doubts over Shkodran Mustafi. The German international suffered a concussion and has yet to return to training. At this late stage, it seems unlikely that he can complete the Graduated Return to Play Protocols, a mandatory testing system for players who have been concussed.
It seems likely, then, that Per Mertesacker will start a game for Arsenal for the first time this season. He was sidelined because of a knee problem, and then was very much on the fringes even when available again, so it’s a door he probably felt wouldn’t have been open to him just a couple of weeks ago.
So much can change so quickly in football, though. The club captain is a hugely experienced player and won’t be fazed by the occasion, but it’s a situation that will certainly be giving Arsene Wenger more headaches than he would like.
The Arsenal manager’s other big decision is whether to start Danny Welbeck or Olivier Giroud up front. The England man’s mobility and pace suit the big Wembley pitch more than the relatively static French international, but there are concerns over his erratic finishing.
Giroud has been a great option as a substitute this season, however, scoring more goals than any other from the bench, and if Arsenal are looking to chase the game he would provide some assurance in that regard.
Ultimately, team selection and injury worries have to be put to one side in the pursuit of a trophy. Arsenal have already beaten Chelsea this season — albeit early on when they have a full complement of central defenders — so they know that Antonio Conte’s side are not an impossible obstacle to overcome.
Finals are often games which don’t follow the expected trajectory. Arsenal are well aware of that, and the FA Cup final in particular has thrown up some unexpected winners down the years.
Above all else, Arsenal need a trophy to plaster over their Premier League disappointment. Their record in the cup final is fantastic. If they beat Chelsea, it will be third cup win in four years, and they are unbeaten in their last five finals, stretching from 2002 to 2015.
Another triumph would also mean Wenger becomes the most successful manager in the competition’s history with seven wins. After a campaign in which he has been under the most intense scrutiny, it would be a good way to finish.
And for the romantics, the manager winning a trophy and calling time on his Arsenal career would be a great way to bow out. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but Saturday provides a chance at redemption for both manager and club.
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