Friday, 26 May 2017

End On A High: FA Cup Final Preview

Arsenal will face Chelsea at Wembley this Saturday to bring down the curtain on what's been a disappointing season, but the Gunners can bow out on a high note. If Arsenal are able to defeat the champions of England, it will go some way towards healing the wounds of this testing 2016/17 campaign.

With all of the uncertainty hanging over the club at the moment still occupying the thoughts of most fans, the real focus should be on who Arsene Wenger will be selecting for the final. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has a full squad at his disposal whereas Arsenal have some glaring issues to address, namely at centre back. With Laurent Koscielny picking up a needless suspension thanks to a straight red card in the final league game of the season, and Gabriel stretchered off the pitch with a long-term knee injury in the same match, the boss has a situation on his hands. Combine the absence of Koscielny and Gabriel with the fact that Shkodran Mustafi is suffering from concussion and could be a major doubt to play, and we're now in the midst of a full-blown selection crisis.

So who can Wenger choose?

Club captain Per Mertesacker is finally back to full fitness after missing the entire season with a knee injury. He came on as a sub against Everton at the weekend but should he feature against Chelsea, he'll still be extremely rusty. Mertesacker is as experienced as they come, a real veteran who has played in some of the most high-stakes games imaginable, but this would really be chucking him in the deep end. At the very least, his leadership skills will be valuable in such a big game.

Rob Holding is likely to be a certain choice. The young Englishman has been in impressive form over the the final weeks of the season and nothing has fazed him since he was thrust back into first team action. I fully expect him to be at the heart of things in defence on Saturday.

With Wenger's recent transition to a back three in defence, the other choice would likely be Nacho Monreal. Not considered a natural centre back, the Spaniard has performed admirably in the position when called upon, and I'm sure Monreal will get the call once again.

The choice of who to play on the wings to support the back three presents yet another problem. Kieran Gibbs, the natural choice on the left, is also struggling with his own fitness issue. Gibbs has yet to return to training this week. Thankfully there are no injury concerns on the right flank, just a tactical headache instead. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been a revelation since adopting the wing back role in April, showing flashes of the player the club hoped he would develop into, and he's worked hard to recover from a recent hamstring injury. Alternatively Wenger could opt for Hector Bellerin, who has struggled a lot this season but has been closer to his usual self in the past few games. Defensively Bellerin would make the most sense, but Oxlade-Chamberlain can offer that bit more in attack.

The rest of the team should pick themselves, with the only real question mark being whether to start Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the focal point of the attack. We are all familiar with what Giroud can offer and, love him or hate him, the guy is a proven-goal scorer (and he's knocked in a couple at Wembley before). Welbeck on the other hand might trouble the Chelsea backline a bit more than Giroud would, thanks to his pace and movement in the channels. If he's fully fit I'd opt for Welbeck to start the game, as Giroud has been effective this season off the bench.

Alexis Sanchez has been a bit of an uncertainty this week with his own fitness problem, but you'd have to build a wall to keep him from playing at Wembley. The ever-tenacious Sanchez will be chomping at the bit to play his part in such a crucial match. On Wednesday, Wenger said: "He needs to go through some tests at the moment and we’ll see how well he comes out of that. Knowing the player, knowing his character and knowing his commitment to the club, which I don’t question at all, he’ll make absolutely everything to be fit for Saturday."

I've seen quite a few pieces about how this could be Sanchez's final game in an Arsenal shirt. I don't think he will leave this summer, but I've been wrong about this before. I also think the outcome of Saturday's game might play some part towards whether he stays or goes. I think I'm in the minority of Arsenal fans when it comes to Sanchez's situation; I don't care very much what he chooses to do. If he stays I'll support him still, and celebrate his goals. If he leaves, I'll shrug my shoulders and focus on who might replace him, rather than mourn his departure. The thing I always talk about with Sanchez is, he's one of the most frustrating superstar Arsenal players I've ever seen, perhaps the most frustrating. I cannot stand his constant need to prove to everyone how skillful he is and the way he takes unnecessary risks in dangerous areas. The amount of times he gives away possession drives me crazy, and I think for a player of his ability and intelligence, he can be better. But then he'll perform a piece of magic or come up with the winning goal and all if forgiven. It drives me nuts. I appreciate players of his calibre are designed to take the riskiest option in order to gain the highest reward, but for Christ's sake Sanchez, just pass the ball sometimes, please?

If it was me (and Mustafi misses out), this would be the first eleven I would opt for:


Holding - Mertesacker - Monreal

Oxlade-Chamberlain - Ramsey - Xhaka - Gibbs

Ozil - Alexis


And finally, will this be Arsene Wenger's final game in charge? After 20 years of service, will it all come to a close on Saturday? Part of me would love to see him bow out in glory, winning one more trophy, his seventh FA Cup. Riding off into the sunset with a cup under his arm is definitely the way to go, should he choose to. I honestly think regardless of what the result is, he will not leave. There'll be a vocal portion of the fanbase outraged if he doesn't go but I just don't see him letting go of the reins until he's good and ready. He'll do it on his terms.

Despite Chelsea being considered the favourites on Saturday, especially considering Arsenal's awful defensive situation, I just hope the Gunners can cause an upset. We've had a very good record at the new Wembley, and in this competition in recent times. Let's put this difficult year behind us and end the season on a high.

Thanks for reading.

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