Mikel Arteta’s ascent from apprentice to master has been swift. The significance of Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Manchester City in the semi-final of the FA Cup will not have gone unnoticed in Spain. Despite starting the campaign as his assistant, Arteta led the Gunners to the unlikeliest of scalps against his former paymaster Pep Guardiola.
If Arsenal are to clinch a record fourteenth FA Cup on Saturday, it will be the result of another rabbit springing from the hat of the former Everton midfielder. There is, however, more at stake for Arsenal than a dashing of pride and a piece of silverware: victory over Chelsea would see the Gunners qualify for the Europa League, albeit not in the style the club’s hierarchy would have liked.
Saturday’s FA Cup final, a repeat of the contest played-out in front of 89,472 spectators in 2016, is a monuments occasion, set in unfeeling times. Tomorrow’s clash of the Londoners will be executed against a backdrop of empty seats and unmoving tifos. For the first time since 1876, there will be fewer than 2,000 people in attendance of the FA Cup final.
Arsenal will approach the final with a degree of trepidation
In actuality, there will be far fewer onlookers than that in attendance. For a while, it didn’t even seem that likely that waistcoat connoisseur Gareth Southgate would be afforded a ticket. No one will forget who won the cup in 2020 – regardless of what happens on Wembley’s fabled turf.
Arsenal will approach the final with a degree of trepidation. If Arsenal’s last five games of the season have taught us anything, it has been to expect the unexpected. Arsenal fell-short in the North London Derby just over a fortnight ago, losing 2-1 against Jose Mourinho’s Spurs. In the days that followed, Arteta led Arsenal to wins against Liverpool and Manchester City. Next, the Gunners travelled to Villa Park. They lost 1-0.
To compound doubts in North London, Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over Watford was hardly convincing either. Arteta’s Arsenal have been brilliant in flashes, but the Gunners are far from the finished product.
Just a short jaunt across the capital, Chelsea’s fortunes are somewhat rosier. Having already secured a place in next season’s Champions League, the Blues will be hoping to add a trophy to what has already been an impressive season under Frank Lampard.
Lampard’s trust in his £70 million goalkeeper has run out, Caballero will start
There have been plenty of bumps in the road for the Stamford Bridge club. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s stature has become so diminished that the Spaniard is now behind Willy Caballero on Chelsea’s depth-chart. Lampard’s trust in his £70 million goalkeeper has run out, Caballero will start on Saturday.
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of this weekend’s curtain call will be the role played by Oliver Giroud. The Frenchman, now a World Cup winner, was a cult hero in North London before making the switch to Chelsea. Giroud is among a small class of players famed for their contributions in the FA Cup, the former Montpellier forward will be vital for Chelsea on Saturday evening.
If Arsenal win the FA Cup, the Gunners will secure a berth in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League. Victory for Chelsea would see the spot allocated to Wolverhampton Wanderers instead.
The culmination of twelve months of effort will come to a close at Wembley tomorrow
This is make or break territory for Arsenal. A season outside of European football altogether would be disastrous for a club previously renowned for finishing fourth. Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang’s future hangs in the balance. A calamitous display from David Luiz could send the former Borussia Dortmund frontman packing.
The culmination of twelve months of effort will come to a close at Wembley Stadium tomorrow. Chelsea will arrive in North London as clear favourites, but there’s something about the FA Cup that just gets Arsenal going.
Frank Lampard’s Chelsea have already banked on next season being better than the one that has just elapsed; Arsenal are yet to make that plunge.
Make no mistake, this is the biggest game in Arsenal’s recent history: it is more significant than last season’s Europa League final. Ultimately, the future of one of England’s greatest clubs is at stake. Arteta needs financial backing in the summer; defeat would be disastrous for his prospects. Saturday will determine where Arsenal can go shopping in August. Everything is on the line.