The English season comes to a close with the FA Cup final on Saturday (live on FOX, FOX Sports Go, 12:30 ET) as Arsenal look to retain the trophy against Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium.
The game is a potentially defining one for both sides, but for very different reasons: Arsenal missed out on second place after a late hiccup and is seeking to win their second straight FA Cup in hopes of building a new legacy of winning at the club. For Aston Villa, however, which endured a shambolic season under Paul Lambert before hiring on Tim Sherwood, this is a chance to win their first FA Cup since 1957 and take the sting out of a season that was spent either in or around the drop zone. (As it was, Villa slumped to 17th place on the final day of the season but had already ensured their survival.)
Arsenal are heavy favorites in this match, a record 19th appearance in the final. With a win, they can claim the record for most FA Cup wins ever as well, and on paper, they look miles ahead of a Villa squad that they thumped by a combined score of 8-0 in their meetings this season. Only Danny Welbeck, sidelined with a knee injury, is unavailable for the Gunners, and with the return of Theo Walcott, they appear to have a fairly slick attack. Olivier Giroud is in the midst of a slump, having gone eight games without a goal, but is likely to start anyway to provide a target for the Gunners’ player of the season, Alexis Sanchez.
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Back to front, Arsenal simply look miles better. While their defense has looked shaky at times this season, the introduction of Francis Coquelin as a shield has been a revelation. Coquelin, a marauding defensive midfielder in the Patrick Vieira mold, has been instrumental in breaking up the play, allowing the experienced but somewhat slower Per Mertesacker to marshal the backline alongside Laurent Koscielny. Nacho Monreal has also blossomed in his role to the point that Kieran Gibbs, once considered a sure-fire starter, is struggling to get into games.
The only real questions for Arsenal are at the back where David Ospina seized the number spot from sloppy keeper Wojciech Szczesny and is likely to start this game as well. Szczesny, an athletic and talented keeper who nonetheless lacks discipline and game management skills, may have in fact played his last match for the club as Arsenal are said to be angling for Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Villa, on the other hand, are statistically awful. Second from last in both offense and defense, the Villans managed to concede nearly as many goals they scored all season long with a nasty habit of allowing late winners. In fact, that tendency saw American keeper Brad Guzan benched down the stretch for the aging Shay Given. Given is expected to start the match after shaking off a nagging groin injury.
What Villa do have is a genuine scoring threat in Christian Benteke. Benteke, who has a $50 million release clause in his contract and is likely to play his final game for Villa on Saturday as a result, has scored 12 goals over his last 12 games and is the most serious threat to Arsenal’s backline. The big Belgian is coveted by clubs across the continent with Liverpool known to be actively bidding for his services. If he can get service from the reborn Tom Cleverley and the rising young star Jack Grealish, he can be extremely dangerous. Add in that Gabriel Agbonlahor is finally back fit and that Fabian Delph loves ranging forward and you have a Villa side that can punch above their weight.
FA Cup finals are general tight affaris, however, with every single match at the new Wembley Stadium decided by just one goal. And of course, Arsenal have a habit of taking the difficult route as their fans found outlast year, when Hull scored twice inside eight minutes to stun the Londoners. Arsenal would go on to win the FA Cup of course, but needed a goal from Aaron Ramsey in extra-time to do so.
But the odds remain firmly in the London giants’ favor. Arsene Wenger is too canny a manager to take anything for granted, but you have to think he is feeling confident ahead of Saturday’s match. After all, his Gunners have gone from strength to strength as the season progressed and finished out the year as one of the hottest teams in the Premier League. A win Saturday would also make a bit of history for Wenger as it would be his sixth, tying him with George Ramsay as the winningest manager in the FA Cup. And the team Ramsey won those with? Villa, of course.