While the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will, for some, be the big event of 2018, for the footballing fraternity it won’t even be the biggest event of this Saturday. Instead, the English football’s showpiece event – the 137th FA Cup final – will take centre stage and, for many, will usurp anything the Royal Wedding has to offer.
Chelsea and Manchester Utd meet at Wembley – a repeat of the 1994 and 2007 finals – and offer an intriguing match-up between two of the giants of the English game, both of whom came up well short in the battle for this year’s Premier League title.
For United’s part, they finished as runners-up but still ended up a whopping 19 points adrift of the champions, Manchester City. For Chelsea – the 2016/17 Premier League champions – the league campaign was a huge disappointment and their lame attempt at defending their title concluded with them 30 points behind City – the equivalent of ten wins. With Man City already having swept up the other domestic trophy – they beat Arsenal 3-0 in the League Cup final in February – for this season’s FA Cup finalists, Saturday represents their only chance of silverware. And so, the stakes are high.
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As ever, running alongside the main event is a series of sub-plots, the most intriguing of which is the battle of the managers. If the prize of the FA Cup wasn’t enough, there is the added spice of the fractious personal relationship between the pair, much of this borne of Chelsea’s Antonio Conte occupying a seat that was once Jose Mourinho’s.
For Mourinho, the battle to win over the Old Trafford faithful hasn’t been an easy one, not least because his preferred, pragmatic style of football is a far cry from the all-guns-blazing style that ran like a golden thread through the Sir Alex Ferguson era. Mourinho, by his own admission, values winning over entertainment and, while there are expensive, high-value stars aplenty in United ranks, the brand of football has done little to get the collective pulse racing. Mourinho, however, will point to the fact that the 81 points gained by United in this season’s Premier League would have been enough to win it in years gone by – most recently in 2015/16 when Leicester won it with exactly that number of points.
An FA Cup win for United would add to an already hugely impressive CV for Mourinho and would, in his eyes, go some way to justifying the style of play that has come under such scrutiny this season. Love him or loathe him, he’s a winner and to have him in their technical area gives the Mancunians an undoubted edge.
By contrast, Antonio Conte has recently cut a lone, frustrated and an increasingly desolate figure in the Chelsea technical area. His inability to inspire an expensively assembled squad to repeat the success of 2016/17 has led to questions being asked of his West London future, and with Roman Abramovich’s [Chelsea owner] notoriously twitchy trigger finger, it would take a brave punter to bet on Conte being in post for the start of next season. In fact, if he wishes to remain as Chelsea manager – by no means a given if his recent body language is anything to go by – possibly the only way for him to do this is by winning on Saturday. A big ‘if’, especially with their last two league games of the season ending in disappointing defeats.
Much of the recent criticism of Conte is around his decision to constantly chop and change his starting XI. What is clear is that the Chelsea boss will hope rumours of him ‘losing’ the dressing room will not manifest itself into a no-show by his players on the biggest stage of all.
By contrast, the last couple of weeks have revealed a latterly unseen togetherness emanating from the red half of Manchester. It began in odd circumstances with Old Trafford playing an unlikely part in Arsene Wenger’s farewell tour – both Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho being part of an on-pitch presentation to the Arsenal boss – but with Sir Alex himself sadly falling ill a few days later, the outpouring of love from the footballing world centred on Manchester and, in turn, further united the Reds both on and off the field.
They arrive at Wembley determined not to only win it for themselves but also for the club legend, who is now out of intensive care and in good spirits. Their desire to lift the cup and then dedicate it to Sir Alex will be overwhelming and makes Chelsea’s task that much more difficult.
United will also become FA Cup record breakers. Prior to Saturday’s game, they remain level with Arsenal in terms of both the number of FA Cup final appearances (19) and the number of wins (12), so even defeat will see them enter the record books as the club that’s appeared in the most finals. Chelsea – who lost 2-1 to Arsenal in last year’s final – also have impressive FA Cup pedigree, having appeared in 11 finals, winning seven of them.
For those looking for some positive signs for the Blues, the recent form guide makes pleasant reading. Since the beginning of season 2012/13, they have played United 16 times and have won exactly half of those games – a very impressive record. For United, there have been only three wins, with five games being drawn. United, however, will point to the fact they have won two out of the last three meetings – both at Old Trafford.
Historically, it’s the Reds who lead the way with 77 wins from their 179 meetings, with Chelsea winning 53 times.
Both sides have injury doubts ahead of Saturday, with Chelsea almost certain to be without David Luiz and Danny Drinkwater, neither of whom have featured in the last few weeks. For United, the biggest question mark is around striker Romelu Lukaku, who has been sidelined since early April after picking up an ankle injury in the Reds’ win over Arsenal. The latest reports coming out of Manchester suggest that the Belgian striker has not made the progress the club had hoped and will struggle to make it. Frenchman Anthony Martial is also a doubt after missing United’s final game of the season at Watford.
In terms of how the teams will line up, while a few of the personnel for Chelsea may be difficult to predict, what is almost certain is that Conte will return to his favoured 3-4-3 formation, with Moses and Alonso continuing as wing-backs in the midfield four. The smart money is on a back three of Azpilicueta, Cahill and Rudiger, with Kante and Fabregas providing the ballast in the centre of their midfield.
Where it gets trickier for Conte is choosing his best front three. While it’s a given that, if fit, Hazard will play just off the main striker – often in a floating role – it’s then a question of going with either Giroud or Morata up top and then either Willian or Pedro in a supporting role. Big decisions and ones he cannot afford to get wrong.
For United, there are fewer question marks and, barring any late injuries and a miraculous recovery by Lukaku, there is a good chance of Mourinho going with the solid looking 4-3-3 that finished the season strongly. In front of arguably the world’s best keeper, David De Gea, expect to see a back four of Valencia, Smalling, Bailly and Young; a vastly experienced quartet who will be unfazed by the occasion.
A midfield three of Matic, Herrera and Pogba will offer a solid shield to the back four and also provide energy aplenty when heading in a forward direction, especially through Pogba who United are still waiting to fully justify his record-breaking transfer fee. A front three of Lingard, Rashford and Sanchez will be tasked with stretching the Chelsea back three, Sanchez another who will be looking to use the biggest stage to justify a massive fee and equally massive wages. United will be hoping the old adage of big players rising to the big occasion will bring Pogba and Sanchez to the fore.
If the form book has anything to do with it, it’s very difficult to see past a United win at odds of +170 with Betway or Bet365. Player-for-player there is little to choose between the two sides and both have squads well versed in the big occasion, but the last couple of games have hinted at a troubled camp in West London. From the outside looking in, the body language of manager and players suggests that all is not well behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, and Jose Mourinho is never one to miss an opportunity to seek an advantage. Those looking for bigger odds can take the +550 on offer with Bet365 about a Manchester United win and both teams to score.
If United can make a positive start to the game and keep a tight rein on Eden Hazard throughout, it’d take character of extraordinary proportions for Chelsea to prevail – a quality that’s been in short supply of late. But Hazard is a wonderful player – one who can win a game single-handedly – and if he’s really in the mood, United’s ageing back four could find themselves stretched in the open spaces of Wembley. One wild card, which could tilt the occasion in Chelsea’s favour, is Olivier Giroud. The ex-Arsenal man has been a Wembley winner on several occasions and could prove to be a thorn in United’s side.
Manchester United to beat Chelsea
Saturday 19th May, 17:15 BST
Manchester United to win and both teams to score
Saturday 19th May, 17:15 BST