Arsenal – Aston Villa FA Cup Final Match Preview
This Is It. Arsenal return to Wembley to try and win their record 12th FA Cup and the 6th of manager Arsene Wenger’s tenure. Doing so would break the deadlock with Manchester United and make Arsenal the most successful club in the history of the oldest competition in all of club football. It would also place Wenger ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson as the modern manager with the most FA Cups to his name and put him level with George Ramsey who won his 6th FA Cup with Aston Villa in 1920.
Ironic then, that to do so, Wenger’s Arsenal must defeat another Villa team, this one led by (Gooner) Tim Sherwood and featuring a revitalized group he was able to keep in the Premier League. Like the trophy we won a year ago against Hull City, it’s another classic David vs Goliath confrontation and another must win for the Arsenal. It’s a single football match, but it’s also a gauge for the collective mood of all Gooners headed into the summer. Win it–ideally in less stressful fashion than we won the previous version–and it’s about tweaking the squad to challenge the best in the country (and on the continent) in the season to come. The alternative really does not bear consideration. Suffice it to say, any result which does not include lifting the cup will undo whatever progress we seem to have made, re-open old wounds and take Wenger’s Arsenal back to the proverbial square one.
That’s pressure and exactly what comes with the territory when you take the pitch in the National stadium.
With the exception of our steady progression through the tournament, this FA Cup has been replete with upsets and with big clubs faltering under these sorts of pressures. The 3rd round, held that first weekend in January and representing the moment the biggest clubs finally have to play, featured no big upsets. The 4th round, however, was one for the ages. Playing in their home stadiums Chelsea (2-4 vs Bradford City), Manchester City (nil-2 vs Middlesbrough), Tottenham (1-2 vs Leicester City) and Southampton (2-3 vs Crystal Palace) ALL lost. Manchester United and Liverpool both drew and had to face replays. What a weekend. Arsenal, having already beaten Hull (2-nil) in a replay of last year’s final in the previous round, traveled to Brighton and won 3-2.
In the 5th round, Arsenal played some fine football and got two rapid fire goals from Olivier Giroud to beat ManCity killers, Boro, but then got drawn to travel to Old Trafford and face Manchester United in a quarterfinal showdown which many predicted would determine the eventual cup winner. Indeed, it was a memorable one. Goals from Nacho Monreal and Danny Welbeck–in his first appearance in front of the fans of his former club–and some bold whistles by referee Michael Oliver against ManU’s band of diving divas (and the sending off of Angel Di Maria when his protestations included a shove to the referee’s back) were the lasting images.
It was a key moment in Arsenal’s season, but it would mean nothing, of course, if we then blew it at Wembley.
The semi-final vs Reading FC showed that a motivated opponent could be successful in thwarting our attack and creating trouble for us. Arsenal slowly warmed to the fight and finally, in the 39th minute, Mesut Ozil found Alexis Sanchez whose diagonal run, cool control and quick finish gave us the lead. We were unable to add to it in the 2nd half, however, and Reading equalized when an attack down our right side led to a cross and deflected shot which beat our cup keeper, Wojciech Szczesny. Aaron Ramsey almost won it in regular time with a shot on frame and forced a save from Adam Federici as the extra time got underway. In the end, it was much tamer shot from Alexis which got the better of the Reading keeper who somehow let the ball go through his body and over the line before he could fully control it or scramble it away.
Now we return to the National stadium for the final and the stiffer challenge of Aston Villa.
Their early progression in the cup featured home wins over Blackpool and Bournemouth, each one by a single goal. Those wins, however, were not enough to save manager Paul Lambert who was fired in early February. Sherwood’s takeover featured new chances for players up and down the squad to prove themselves. Soon after he took over, Villa beat Leicester City in the 5th round of the cup and then West Bromwich Albion in the quarterfinals. Both matches featured goals from one such new player, Scott Sinclair, acquired from Manchester City in January.
As Sherwood’s tenure moved on, other players emerged. Christian Benteke, finally recovered from injury, began showing why he is one of the most feared center forwards in England. 19 year old Jack Grealish, a player who hardly featured under Lambert, was given a real run in the team and has sparked tremendous excitement with his ability to take on defenders and cause havoc in attack. Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverly have also established a solid presence in midfield. Suddenly, under Sherwood, Villa could score goals and their defense, riddled all season by injuries, wasn’t compromised at quite the level it had been, for example, in the league matches we had played against them earlier. Those two were some of the most comprehensive victories of our league campaign–the first a 3 nil battering at Villa Park in September, the 2nd a 5 nil romp at our place.
As Sherwood’s Villa worked themselves away from the drop zone they appeared a team who no longer played not to lose. By April their league survival looked increasingly secure. Their best result of all, however, came in the Cup semi-final against LIverpool. After going a goal down, Villa outplayed the heavy favorites and earned their return trip to Wembley through goals from Benteke and Delph. They’ve stumbled a bit since, including losing their final two league matches, but Sherwood has accomplished what he was hired to do and this cup final surely will be seen as a crowning moment. Unlike Arsenal, who simply MUST win in order to confirm that our 3rd place finish in the league was a positive step forward, Villa will come into this one with absolutely nothing to lose.
With that attitude guiding him, Sherwood, I think, will have his players believing they can both defend and attack as needed. Unlike many who are expecting that he will set out a parked bus, I suspect he will have his boys geed up to have a real go at us from the opening kickoff. If they cannot score from open play, earning set-pieces–aimed at Benteke’s big frame or off the fine right foot of Leandro Bacuna–could be the path to glory. We should thus be fully prepared for a physical battle in all areas of the pitch. As such, we cannot take too much from the success we had in our last match against West Brom who defended in a somnambulant style. Villa will be much more confident that they can match, if not even overpower our midfield and backline. Our players must cover and fight for one another and we could use a friend in referee Jonathan Moss. My hunch is that Wenger will revert back to the more physically robust group which started 6 matches on the trot, with one exception, Szczesny in goal. It’s a little harsh on the goal scorers from the last match, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, but we should remember that this match could go 120 minutes. If they’re introduced they might have an extra half hour to make an impact, at which point their pace and drive might work a treat against a tired Villa squad. Here then is my predicted first 11:
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Walcott
Squad selection in an end of season cup final is a huge responsibility for the manager and he must take great care in handing the double-edged sword of pressure and opportunity to his men. It also has implications for the make-up of the squad and the future of individual players heading into the close season. Overall, by way of fitness or lack thereof, I think the squad more or less picks itself, except, perhaps, at the two positions at either end of the pitch: goalkeeper and center forward. Szczesny, dropped as the number 1 keeper for league matches in January, has been in net for each round of our cup progression. I believe he will get the nod tomorrow to compensate for having to watch a year ago as his compatriot and back-up, Lukas Fabianski, did the keeping. A clean sheet would go a long way toward restoring equity in his competition with David Ospina for the position going into the new season. A critical error or not being selected, however, could put his Arsenal future in doubt.
I also believe Giroud will be selected to lead our line. His return from injury around the beginning of the new year was as big a factor as any other in our improved form in 2015. Moreover, for this one, his height, like Szczesny’s, will be needed to defend against Benteke at set pieces. Even though his last goal was almost two months ago and was a late one which only added gloss in our home league win over Liverpool, he adds so much more than that. As the focal point for our attack he frees our midfielders to use him for quick 1-2s or longer moments of hold up play. Playing an occasional ball towards his big body from out wide, if not likely to result in a goal, can at least serve as a tactic to restore a little extra attacking space through the middle of the pitch.
Obviously, any cup final is a big match. As much as all the pressure resides on our shoulders it’s also an opportunity for players to make their marks in Arsenal lore. For example, how much pleasure might Giroud take if he were to score a goal (or more), something a certain critic of his was never able to accomplish in an Arsenal shirt (nor in a France or Barcelona kit). As Gooners we’d all like to avoid a repeat of the early goals we conceded against Hull City a year ago in this same match. Still, the goals scored by Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny which brought us back into that one, plus the winner from Aaron Ramsey, will not soon be forgotten. This is the stuff from which memories are made.
Finally, and speaking of memories… We haven’t heard plans from our fearless–but also very busy–leader, Total Arsenal, recently, but there was talk a few weeks back about shutting down the site, at least for the summer. With less involvement from him, traffic on the site appears to have dropped off dramatically. Of course, it may also be that Arsenal have been performing closer to the expectations of Gooners so there’s less need to vent frustration and propose easy (and often untestable) solutions. It could also simply be that the season is coming to an end and the longer days and better weather beckons. Regardless, I just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed writing the match previews these past few months and that I want to offer HUGE THANKS to all who have read them and commented. It’s been a privilege. Like my friend, James Bond (007, our superspy…) said in his most recent post (which, sadly, was also a couple of weeks ago…), “Blogging is an addiction.” As such, if this place closes, you will probably be able to find me in the comments section of some other Arsenal blog somewhere. We can never know what the future holds so we cannot know when our football team will be back in a cup final nor when we will gather again in the Goonersphere to celebrate or dissect their performance. Like we hope our team does tomorrow, let’s enjoy this one…
Go on then…