Game to watch: Arsenal vs Chelsea
For all the silliness written and spoken about the FA Cup losing its magic, this has been a vintage year for the old competition. Westfields FC making the first round, Stourbridge making the third round and Lincoln City reaching the quarter-finals provided plenty enough romance, while the semi-final line-up indicated that every elite club wants to win this competition.
This year’s final is a showpiece occasion, too, for the first time in a while. Last season’s final saw 5th vs 15th in the Premier League (Manchester United vs Crystal Palace), while the years directly before that were match-ups between 3rd vs 17th, 4th vs 16th, 2nd vs 18th, 6th vs 8th, 3rd vs 13th and 1st vs 20th. The last time two teams who had finished in the top six played each other was 2009, when Chelsea beat Everton. Six of the last seven finals have featured a bottom-half Premier League team.
With that in mind, this is a truly fascinating contest. Antonio Conte is aiming to become the third coach (after Kenny Dalglish and Carlo Ancelotti) to win the Double in his first season as manager at an English club, while Arsene Wenger seeks some form of salvation. More on him later.
The game itself is also intriguing. Arsenal have been at their worst against bigger clubs when being passive and hoping to find their feet in the match, and at their best when taking the game to the opposition. Yet that strategy will take a great deal of gumption given the defensive injuries Wenger is being forced to compensate for. Will he really let Arsenal off the leash with nobody to guard the back door? And can Arsenal truly keep Chelsea at bay if they operate a safety-first mentality? He’s Holding out for a hero…
Player to watch: Granit Xhaka
There is a section of Arsenal’s support who have formed a weird cult in defence of Granit Xhaka, a group who fail to countenance any criticism of their central midfielder. The rest of us, thankfully, can see slightly beyond the end of our Arsenal noses.
It is not that Xhaka has been awful, you understand, more that he is the personification of Arsenal’s season. Bought for £35m to solve an age-old problem, Xhaka’s signing offered evidence that Wenger had turned over a new leaf with regards to the need for investment in his squad. There’s nothing as frustrating as hope turning to disappointment.
While Xhaka has toiled – particularly when tasked with babysitting Francis Coquelin – and again fallen foul of his reputation for ill-discipline, N’Golo Kante has flourished at Chelsea. Given Xhaka’s transfer fee was higher than Kante’s it is impossible not to compare and contrast. Kante was the midfielder who won Chelsea the title; Xhaka was the major signing before a season when Arsenal dropped out of the top four for the first time in 20 years.
Now Xhaka has a chance to claw back some redemption again, against that same opponent. If this is Arsenal’s chance to salvage something from a miserable season, Xhaka must be keener than most to get his hands on silverware for the first time since leaving Switzerland in 2012.
Team to watch – Huddersfield Town
When David Wagner took over in November 2015, Huddersfield were a club treading water. They had finished 19th, 17th and 16th in the previous three seasons, and were 18th when Chris Powell had been sacked. There were plenty – as there always is – who wrung their hands over the decision to go for a German with no experience in England over a more established name.
Wagner had other ideas. He was sold, by us too, as Jurgen Klopp Mk II, having managed Borussia Dortmund’s reserve side and forged a close friendship with Liverpool’s manager. “Jurgen and I share the same philosophy,” Wagner said at his unveiling. “We have known each other for 25 years and we spoke about football for maybe 20,000 hours in this time. The style of game we love is exactly the same. We love the speed and passion; the full throttle way.”
He has stayed true to those words. Many doubted whether a coach could replicate the heavy metal football of Dortmund in a market town in West Yorkshire, but Wagner has proved even the optimists wrong. Having finished 19th last season and invested in six players from the German leagues, Huddersfield mounted a serious title challenge before falling short. Having looked half-knackered for most of April and May, Huddersfield then beat Sheffield Wednesday on penalties to reach their Wembley final.
While Reading and Jaap Stam have preferred pragmatism to passion, Huddersfield have undoubtedly become the neutral’s Championship team over the past nine months. A club without top-flight football in 45 years could finally reach the big time.
Manager to watch – Arsene Wenger
So, his last game in charge, eh?
What a piping hot mess. Having refused to answer questions on his future all season, Wenger finally conceded that the uncertainty over his position had adversely affected Arsenal’s performance level this season, as if this was some extraordinary reveal of something we hadn’t all worked out for ourselves. No sooner had he done so, Wenger was leaking to his media sources that he blamed the club for this lack of certainty.
This has all become incredibly undignified. There are very few Arsenal supporters who consider Wenger the right man to lead the club over the next two seasons. He is a manager made weary by the situation, unable to walk away from something he holds dear. Arsenal and Arsene are in symbiosis, but the relationship is no longer working.
The right thing would therefore be for Wenger to lift the FA Cup on Saturday, feeling the sun on his face and the applause of Arsenal’s support for the last time before walking off into the sunset. The likelier scenario is the opposite: an understrength Arsenal lose to Chelsea and Wenger hangs on. The promises of change continue long into the summer, but are a distraction tactic from stagnancy at board level and below. It is up to Wenger to change that tale of woe.
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Football League game to watch – Blackpool vs Exeter City
With the Championship play-off final covered above, we can turn our attention to Sunday’s League Two fare. Blackpool and Exeter City both reached Wembley after incredible semi-final second legs, and must now attempt to follow that Lord Mayor’s show.
Those semi-finals offer hope that this could be a thoroughly entertaining game, but the major talking point ahead of the final will be the empty seats in Blackpool’s end of Wembley Stadium. The Oystons’ ownership has long been a national news story, with supporters continuing their boycott throughout this league season. The average attendance (including away fans) in the 17,338-capacity Bloomfield Road in league games this season was 3,457. With fewer than 10,000 Blackpool supporters expected at Wembley on Sunday, it will give the game an unusual atmosphere.
Exeter were the entertainers of League Two, scoring 75 league goals and conceding 56. They drew just eight of their 46 league games, and will rely on the goals of David Wheeler and the creativity of Ollie Watkins and Ryan Harley.
One-on-one battle to watch – Diego Costa vs Per Mertesacker
Welcome in, Per. Take off your shoes and warm up by the fire. Those icicles hanging from your nose will melt in no time.
Arsenal’s captain must have wondered whether he would ever come in from the cold again. Mertesacker has played 37 minutes of Premier League football this season, having started 24 league games last season and 70 in two previous combined. It is not that Mertesacker has offended anyone or made himself persona non grata, but the German’s lack of speed and a few high-profile errors mean he gets nowhere near Arsene Wenger’s first-choice defence even with Arsenal using a central defensive three.
Yet here Mertesacker is, returning from injury to play a vital role for Wenger, whose hand has been considerably weakened. A central defender without a start since April 2016 will be expected to cope with Diego Costa, one of the most difficult strikers in Europe to keep quiet.
There is a chance that this could be Costa’s last ever game in a Chelsea shirt and his last ever in England. The rumours of a move to the Chinese Super League have quietened down, but Atletico Madrid are reportedly still keen to bring their boy back home. Would you bet against Costa making Mertesacker look rusty and leading Chelsea to the double?
European game to watch – Roma vs Genoa
There are bigger games in Europe this week (the list below includes four European finals on Saturday alone), but do yourself a favour and watch BT Sport on Sunday afternoon to take in the final match of Francesco Totti in a Roma shirt.
Totti spoke on Thursday to hint that he may continue playing elsewhere, with rumours of a one-year offer from another Serie A club on the table. Yet that will not reduce the raw emotion of Sunday evening’s game, when the great man says goodbye to the Stadio Olimpico.
“Roma is everything to me, everything a person can want: passion, love, joy – the team I have always supported and always will,” said Totti in 2015. One of the pillars of our footballing education ends his reign as the King of Rome. Il Re di Roma prepare for his abdication.
Where is Mike Dean this week?
He’s at home, watching this weekend’s three domestic finals on television because he wasn’t asked to be a part of any of them. And he’s fine with that. Absolutely fine.
Ten live matches to watch
Celtic vs Aberdeen (Saturday, 3.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Arsenal vs Chelsea (Saturday, 5.30pm, BBC One)
Eintracht Frankfurt vs Borussia Dortmund (Saturday, 7.00pm, BT Sport ESPN)
Angers vs PSG (Saturday, 8.00pm, TV5 Monde (Sky channel 796)
Barcelona vs Alaves (Saturday, 8.30pm, Sky Sports 2)
Man City Women vs Arsenal Ladies (Sunday, 12.00pm, BT Sport 1)
Blackpool vs Exeter City (Sunday, 3.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Roma vs Genoa (Sunday, 5.00pm, BT Sport 3)
Atlanta United vs New York City FC (Sunday, 10.00pm, Sky Sports 2)
Huddersfield Town vs Reading (Monday, 3.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey (who is bloody excited to be going to all three Wembley finals)