It’s time for the English curtain closer; the FA Cup final with another meeting between clubs from opposite ends of the table. Last year’s finale saw fourth placed Arsenal take on 16th placed Hull City. On Saturday, the gap widens slightly as we see third placed Arsenal take on 17th placed Aston Villa. Some would argue that this is the magic of the cup. Any team at any time can reach the final and mount a surprise challenge for the oldest domestic competition in the world. Well, let the magic begin.
Arsenal are looking to solidify their FA Cup supremacy, being currently tied for the most wins with Manchester United at 11. A As reigning FA Cup holders, a win on Saturday would see them be the first team to retain the trophy since Chelsea in 2010. It would not be the first time for the Gunners though, as they were back-to-back FA Cup champions in 2003 and 2004. None of these records and past achievements will come into play as the Arsenal players take the field on the weekend, though. If anything, gauging by the recent past, this will not be a stroll in the park. Many Arsenal fans are probably still seeing flashbacks from last season when they required an extra-time goal to beat Wigan in the semis and then went 2-0 down to Hull in the first 20 minutes of the final.
On the other hand, Aston Villa’s relationship with the FA Cup has not been so stellar. Their last win was in 1957. Their recent “successes” have been reaching the semi final in 2010 and the final in 2000, losing to Chelsea both times. Their current Premier League campaign has also been marred with disappointment after disappointment. After an impressive first handful of games, the Villains went through ten hours of football without a goal and plummeted into the relegation zone. In came Timothy Sherwood. Speaking of Magic, he definitely brought it! We even named a podcast after him. Revitalizing the squad, getting Benteke scoring again like we all know he can, surviving the drop, and reaching the FA Cup final. Not a bad job. This is Villa’s best chance of a trophy since their League Cup win in 1996.
Road to Wembley
Arsenal’s path to the final was, statistically, more rough than smooth. They started it all off with an easy 2-0 win at home against last year’s finalists, Hull. Easy peasy. Next came a seemingly benign test against Brighton. As impressive as Arsenal were on the day, with Ozil and Rosicky scoring, they still made it harder than it should have been. Brighton battled hard but could not match Arsenal, who were eventual 3-2 winners at the Amex Stadium. Premier League hopefuls Middlesbrough were next up, but easily disposed of 2-0 at the Emirates.
The real test for Arsenal’s FA Cup dreams was on the horizon. A trip to Old Trafford. You couldn’t have written the script any better for Arsenal fans. Nacho Monreal opened the scoring after Oxlade Chamberlaine slithered through three united defenders with some brilliant footwork. After Rooney equalised, it all looked finely balanced. The defining moment came when none other than Manchester native Danny Welbeck latched onto a horrific back-pass from Valencia to put Arsenal 2-1 ahead and through to the semi finals.
From this point onwards, Arsenal were labelled by most as favorites. Only Liverpool and Aston Villa remained in the other half of the draw, and the Merseysiders were not in the best run of form. They crashed out to Villa prior to Arsenal’s semi final against Reading. If anything, this put more pressure on the Arsenal camp as they were now clear favorites. Boy did it show. Arsenal had one of their worst winning performances of the season. In the end, Sanchez – as he has been for most of the season – was their saviour scoring two goals which were enough to secure a birth in the final.
Villa started the cup campaign during a bad run of form in the League. If anything, the Cup was a breath of fresh air to take and welcome distraction. Benteke opened the scoring with a moment of brilliance in the fifth round to beat Blackpool 1-0. Carles Gil, not to be outdone, scored an absolute beauty to put Villa one up against Bournemouth at home,Villa eventually winning that one 2-1. In-keeping with the incredibly majestic goals Villa had scored so far, Bacuna curled a gem to give Villa the lead against Leicester City in front of the watchful eyes of soon-to-be manager, Tim Sherwood. Sinclair added a second and Villa won the game 2-1.
This is where the Cup started to get exciting for Aston Villa fans. West Brom, their bitter bitter rivals, were coming to Villa Park. Tim Sherwood was now manager and things had started to turn for the better in the League. The atmosphere was electric and the match a fantastic advert for the FA Cup as a tournament. Two local rivals going head to head in a knockout game. Sinclair becomes the hero again for the second round in a row, curling the ball past the helpless West Brom keeper. 2-0 Aston Villa and they were in the semis. It’s important to add here that all of Villa’s games, by result of the draw, were at home. Which made life a little simpler.
The semi though, was not at home. It was at a neutral venue. None other than Wembley against the once mighty Liverpool. I’m not sure if this was the worst game Liverpool have ever played at Wembley or the best Villa have played. Villa’s midfield were on fire that day. Young Jack Grealish, captain Fabian Delph, and hard-working Ashley Westwood were unstoppable. Coupled with Villa’s pace on the wings, they cut Liverpool in ribbons. Benteke scored the equalizer to take the game to 1-1 before a brilliant Delph goal to win the game. Camera pan to Sherwood’s beaming smile.
I’m not going to make predictions. I’ll just point out where the game can be won for both teams. Arsenal must take advantage of Villa’s slow defenders. The talk amongst the fans is all about whether Walcott should start the game after his impressive performance in Arsenal’s league game against West Brom. And if so, where? On the right ahead of Ramsey, or up front instead of the misfiring Giroud? Villa’s defense have not been the most solid recently, as we saw them concede six to Southampton, after being ripped apart by pace.
On the other hand, for all the pace they lack at the back, Villa have rapid options up front. Abgonlahor, Sinclair, and Weimann are all very quick. Add to them Benteke and Delph, and you have yourself a very capable counter-attacking team. This is where they can win the game. Soak up Arsenal’s pressure and frustrate them. Keep the score 0-0 for as long as possible. At this point, Arsenal players tend to lose their tactical shape and venture forward…especially the full-backs. That tactic can work. Or…you know…score early and hold on to the lead. Whatever.
I’m looking forward to a very entertaining FA Cup final where Arsenal players freeze in the headlights for the first 30 minutes of the game, and the camera man pans to Sherwood’s face every chance possible. Enjoy.