Regardless of the result, tomorrow will be final game of one of the most impressive seasons in Chelsea’s history. What Antonio Conte and his squad have achieved ranks them among the most impressive champions of the Premier League era. In any circumstances, 93 is an astonishing points total but given the competition they’ve faced, the disaster of last season and the disappointment of last summer’s transfer window, it is difficult to overstate the quality of the work done this year to restore the club to the top of the domestic ladder, when it looked so recently as though a monumental rebuilding job was required.
Tomorrow then is our chance to turn a remarkable season into a historic one – and complete only the 12th domestic double in English football’s 129 year competitive history.
However, despite being on the cusp of such an incredible achievement, the build up to the game has been strangely muted. It has felt for so long that the season has been simply winding down towards our inevitable crowning, that this fixture (our biggest fixture of 2017 so far), has been something of an afterthought.
It’s a peculiar dynamic to be facing ahead of a major final against a top side; the degree to which Chelsea have been made favourites (I can’t find a single bookmaker that has Chelsea any better than evens) almost slightly diminishes the occasion. What should represent an opportunity to make history, instead seems like a mere addendum to the campaign, and just one more chance to demonstrate the superiority we have proven over and over again, all season. Victory seems as though it will be almost a formality.
Still, we can unpack all of the reasons why we are such heavy favourites. For the first time since DVDs have existed Arsenal have finished outside the Top 4; uncertainty over the future of Arsene Wenger and key players has the club in as tentative a position, with regards their long term future, as they have faced in an extremely long time. With Alexis Sanchez seemingly off to Bayern Munich and no Champions League to attract top replacements, it would probably be safe to say losing an FA Cup final would be far from their biggest concern right now.
On top of this wider predicament, they’re also facing a small crisis in defence. Gabriel has injured his knee ligaments and will definitely miss the game, as will Laurent Koscielny, who evidently didn’t fancy being humiliated by Eden Hazard once more, and so decided to poleaxe Enner Valencia last weekend, securing himself a nice three game ban. Shkodran Mustafi might be OK following his head injury against Sunderland, but either way, their back line tomorrow afternoon will hardly be matching up on paper to our forwards, especially with Hazard, Pedro and Willian in such good form.
Wenger has a problem now deciding what formation to play, while his best defender is suspended. He switched to a back four when his side went down to 10 men against Everton, I think it’s a strategy he might stick with, just to save himself the trouble of having to start Per Mertesacker for the first time this season. The other option is a back three with Nacho Monreal as a side centre back, though I think he’d prefer to play the Spaniard higher and wider on the left wing, Kieran Gibbs is another option for the wing back position.
Upfront his choice will be between Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud, neither of whom have had great seasons, and who will be supported primarily by Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, the latter of whom is surely leaving as soon as possible, and the former of whom presumably would be if he had any offers than weren’t coming from Turkey.
Antonio Conte’s only two selection decisions are the only two he has faced all season, when choosing from a fully fit squad, and one would guess that he’ll make the same two choices he has all season, once more. Both Cesc Fabregas and Willian have been in great form these last six weeks and both will surely play a part at some point. Common sense dictates that if Conte has opted for the added security and directness of Matic and Pedro in Premier League games against mid-table sides, the same thought process will apply to a cup final.
JT and Diego Farewell
Diego’s excessive double-armed waving as he was subbed against Sunderland seemed to confirm what has been widely suspected for a while – that he will leave the club this summer. Either to return to Atletico or for an astronomical salary in Jiangsu. His legacy will rightly be based around his two incredible runs of form (Aug to Nov 2014 and Sep to Dec 2016) that were essential to our league triumphs in those seasons. At his best Costa has been a true leader in this group, a world class centre forward in virtually every respect. At his worst he was a reckless, immature waste of space up front, and so the thought of replacing him this season isn’t too much of a concern, in spite of his incredible talent and monumental contributions, the thought of a more reliable, slightly saner striker next season is a welcome one. One can only hope now he leaves English football in appropriate fashion, with an inspired hat-trick performance and a red card for clotheslining Granit Xhaka in the last few minutes.
Meanwhile, despite it being his last official game for the club I would guess that John Terry won’t feature, particularly following his enjoyably narcissistic departure from the pitch last Saturday. He can settle for enjoying the game from the bench and then becoming the first club captain in history to have lifted five FA Cups – one final record for the most decorated player in the history of the club, and one final chance to piss off the rest of the league by lifting a trophy he hasn’t won.
Enjoy the game!