FA Cup final: Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta chase silver lining to first campaigns
“It was a miracle.” Those were the words which stood out when Per Mertesacker was asked to give his verdict on the 2017 FA Cup final earlier this week.
Arsenal turned up at Wembley that day on the back of their worst league season in recent memory, finally sliding out of the Champions League spots after 19 consecutive seasons. Depleted by injuries, they lined up with a back three of Rob Holding, Nacho Montreal and Mertesacker, the latter making his first start of the season and swaying like an ancient oak tree in a thunderstorm.
They were up against the great tormentors of the late Arsene Wenger era, Chelsea, who had just won the title with a total of 93 points under Antonio Conte. Where Conte could call upon Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, N’Golo Kante and all the rest, Wenger was forced to start Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at left wing-back. The omens, it was fair to say, were not good.
Instead of deflating like a punctured balloon as so many expected, however, Arsenal gave the performance of the season. Holding was immense, Mertesacker did his best Paolo Maldini impression, while Wenger raged against the dying of the light and delivered the last major trophy of his 22-year reign.
When the same all-London final is re-run on Saturday, Mikel Arteta will have to hope there is some cosmic symmetry at work as he looks for his first trophy as a manager. Arsenal may be coming to the end of an even worse league season, but the gulf between them and Chelsea doesn’t seem quite so chasmic.
Despite Arsenal finishing ten points and four places behind their old nemeses in eighth, Arteta has given fans reason for hope in recent weeks having picked up unlikely wins against Liverpool and Manchester City. Chelsea, meanwhile, have been inconsistent, good wins against Manchester United, Wolves and, to a lesser extent, Norwich punctuated by emphatic defeats to Liverpool and Sheffield United.
Still, Arsenal had reason for hope going into last year’s Europa League final in Baku only to be utterly demolished by an otherwise uncelebrated Chelsea side under Maurizio Sarri. Where Arsenal need to evoke the spirit of 2017, Chelsea need only look back as far as last May for encouragement.
That leaves this final delicately poised, not least because, like Arteta, Frank Lampard is also a manager with a reputation to build. Having guided Chelsea to Champions League qualification with a youth-oriented squad, he may not feel quite the same pressure to deliver a trophy for the season but, given the obsessive short-termism of English football, it would head off any criticism from punditry’s silverware fundamentalists. Then again, who knows whether winning the FA Cup is a valid cause for celebration in the remorseless mind of Roy Keane.
Both Arteta and Lampard face selection dilemmas, though Arsenal are worse affected by injuries. Emi Martinez has done well since coming in for the sidelined Bernd Leno in goal, but Arsenal’s back line is still notably diminished.
Pablo Mari and Calum Chambers are long-term absentees while, after a fleeting upturn in form, Shkodran Mustafi has been forced to undergo surgery on a hamstring injury sustained in the semi-finals against Manchester City. Holding may be called upon to produce a repeat of 2017, though he had a difficult game against Watford last weekend and an emergency recall for Sokratis is still an option. Whether he has it in him to “do a Mertesacker”, only he knows.
Having been left out against Wolves last weekend with a knock, it will be interesting to see whether Willian is given a recall by Lampard. He has been heavily linked with a move to Arsenal in recent weeks which, given that he is a client of Kia Joorabchian, would hardly be a surprise. Then there is Kante, who has suffered so badly with injuries this term. He has missed Chelsea’s last six matches and, though he is still a game changer, Lampard may decide he has little choice but to stick with Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho.
Lampard also has to decide who to start between the sticks, having dropped Kepa Arrizabalaga for Willy Caballero last weekend. If Kepa’s Chelsea career really is over and done with, then conceding five goals to Liverpool in his final game for the club was a sad way for the world’s most expensive goalkeeper to go.
Likewise, presuming both start, all eyes will be on David Luiz and Olivier Giroud as they walk out at Wembley. On opposite sides in 2017, teammates for Chelsea in Baku, no-one else has the same conflicting potential to inspire grudging accolades and total exasperation.
Having scored Chelsea’s opener in last year’s Europa League final, Giroud went viral afterwards when he was caught on camera shouting: “Thank you Arsenal!” His former fans will have to hope it’s Chelsea’s turn to do Luiz a favour though, given that he’s both a footballer and the least stable element in the periodic table, he could just as easily gift Giroud the winner at any given moment.
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