Rare big-six FA Cup decider sees Chelsea primed to hand Antonio Conte a first-season double
The Blues go in hot favourites against an Arsenal side missing key defenders Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel
One of English football’s big six clubs usually lifts the FA Cup but Saturday’s Wembley showdown between Arsenal and Chelsea is a relatively rare final between two of them.
The last big-six clash in the final was five years ago when Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-1 and the one before that was another five years earlier when Chelsea again emerged victorious, this time 1-0 over Manchester United with a Didier Drogba extra-time winner.
If that gives Chelsea a good cup pedigree, the same is true of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Over the past 20 years, going back to Wenger’s first season, Arsenal and Chelsea have been the most successful clubs in the FA Cup, each lifting the trophy six times as well as finishing runner-up on one occasion.
Chelsea are strong favourites to win on Saturday and complete the league and cup double in Antonio Conte’s first season.
Having once been a rarity, the double became more commonplace in the 1990s when it was achieved five times in nine years up to 2002, but it is a mark of the increasing competitiveness at the top level of English football that only Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea (2009-10) have managed it since.
For Conte to emulate his fellow Italian with a double in his first season in England would arguably be an even greater achievement.
His Chelsea side accumulated seven more points in the league than Ancelotti’s double-winning team and, whereas the 2010 final was against Portsmouth (who finished bottom of the Premier League that season), Conte’s players will have to defeat Arsenal, having already beaten Manchester United and Tottenham en route to the final.
Such a triumphant season for Chelsea hardly seemed possible eight months ago when they were thumped 3-0 away to Arsenal in the Premier League but, as everyone has acknowledged, half-time in that match was the pivotal moment in the whole season.
Having watched his side concede three goals in the first half, Conte switched to his preferred three-man defence, which led to a goalless second half and then a 13-match winning streak in the Premier League that put Chelsea in control of the title race.
By the time Chelsea and Arsenal met again in the reverse league fixture in early February, the balance of power had well and truly shifted and Chelsea won 3-1, with Eden Hazard scoring one of the goals of the season with his defence-shredding run and cool finish.
There is no home advantage this time but Chelsea still hold the upper hand. Since that 3-0 defeat away to Arsenal in September, Chelsea have won seven out of 10 against other big-six teams in all competitions with their only two defeats coming away to Tottenham and Manchester United.
Arsenal, by contrast, have won only one out of nine (in 90 minutes) against big-six opponents since that early-season victory over Chelsea.
One of the other matches was the extra-time victory over Manchester City in the semi-final, but it is worth noting that their only clean sheet in one of those nine matches was in the 2-0 win over United in the league early this month.
The evidence of the form book shows that Arsenal concede on a regular basis against elite opponents and consequently find it difficult to win, while Chelsea’s only two defeats against big-six teams since the Arsenal away game both came when they were shut out (both 2-0 against Tottenham and United).
A clean sheet against Chelsea would have been difficult enough for Arsenal even before the calamities that befell two of their best defenders last weekend, but the suspension of Laurent Koscielny and the injury to Gabriel has blown a hole in their back line.
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That tilts the balance significantly towards Chelsea and makes them a confident selection for the win in 90 minutes.
It would be sad if this turns out to be Wenger’s last game in Arsenal and it does end in defeat, although the feeling is that he will carry on next season.
The same cannot be said of your correspondent, who is bowing out of penning this column after 14 seasons – longer than many footballers get at the top level.
Writing a betting column in Hong Kong is an onerous responsibility but also a highly enjoyable one, and hopefully on occasions it has been profitable for anyone following my tips.
Diego Costa can surely forget China move after shock new 100 per cent ‘tax’ doubles price of foreign stars and likely bursts football bubble
In an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory – which may well end in the same ignominious failure that regularly afflicts the England football team – I have made five selections for the FA Cup final. Corners to go over 11.5 is the No 1 pick.
Hard to oppose with Arsenal’s defence in tatters
More than 11.5 corners
Twelve looks a solid benchmark
Pedro (or Willian) to score first
Right flank should provide good openings
1-0 to Chelsea at half-time
Good alternative to backing win-win
3-1 to Chelsea at full-time
A repeat of the last league meeting
Corners in the last Chelsea-Arsenal match