For the past two seasons, victories over Hull City have helped to salvage a trophy from an otherwise disappointing season. Ahead of their meeting in the competition for a third straight year on Saturday, however, Arsene Wenger will be hoping that the FA Cup will be merely a bonus in a season to savor.
Two years ago the situation was very different. Arsenal went into the 2014 final without a trophy in nine years and having spent another season without seriously threatening to land the Premier League title, as fan frustration continued to grow. When Arsenal went 2-0 down in the first eight minutes at Wembley, things were looking very grim indeed. Wenger’s very future was on the line, having yet to extend his contract beyond that season. And he hinted on Friday that had Arsenal not come back to win with an extra -time goal through Aaron Ramsey, he may not be the club’s manager today.
“It was up in the air, it was to give everything to win the final and afterward reflect on it,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “If we had lost it I don’t know, honestly I don’t know. It would have been a problem if we had not had won, yes, because it would a massive disappointment for everybody, but we won.”
Last season Hull were victims again, this time in the third round. Arsenal went on to retain the FA Cup and provide some solace after another early Champions League exit and failure to push Chelsea for the Premier League title.
The stakes do not appear nearly so high this time around. A dramatic victory over Leicester City last Sunday means Arsenal are just two points off the top of the Premier League as they seek to bring their long title drought to an end. And on Tuesday Arsenal have a tantalizing, if daunting, meeting with Barcelona at the Emirates Stadium in the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie.
Wenger has insisted that the clash with the European champions won’t lessen their determination to seal an FA Cup quarterfinal berth. “The best way to prepare for Barcelona is to beat Hull tomorrow,” he said. “If we don’t do that we put ourselves in a very bad position.”
Yet, despite that, he has also made clear that he will use the game to give some of his fringe players a run out. David Ospina is a confirmed starter in place of Petr Cech in goal, having also played in Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Burnley in the previous round of the FA Cup. There were also strong suggestions that Danny Welbeck, fresh from scoring an injury-time winner on his return from injury against Leicester, and January signing Mohamed Elneny will feature in the starting lineup.
Hull City, too, have other ambitions taking priority over the FA Cup. After relegation from the Premier League last season, Steve Bruce’s side are battling for promotion back to the top flight. Currently top of the Championship they are in a strong position to do just that. And, while he has a fully fit squad at his disposal, he has confirmed he will heavily rotate his lineup.
“There will be sweeping changes,” he said. “It’s not something that I want to harp on about but we’ve been dealt a difficult one with television requirements and ten games in 33 days is a ridiculous schedule for any club. Thankfully, touch wood, we haven’t really got any injuries but the schedule will test us as a squad. We’ve got some big games coming up thick and fast. Yes, the FA Cup is the FA Cup and we had what was probably the best day out in this club’s history two years ago, but our prime focus has to be on returning to the Premier League.”
Two players who definitely won’t be playing for Hull are Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden, both of whom are currently on loan from Arsenal.
Kickoff time: 7:45 a.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1