After celebrating avoiding the need for a perilous Champions League qualifier, Arsenal will attempt to end their season on a real high by becoming the most successful club in the 144-year history of the FA Cup. Arsenal will take on Aston Villa at Wembley on Saturday looking to seal a 12th triumph and move ahead of Manchester United in the all-time winners’ table. It would also see them repeat their feat of 12 years ago by recording back-to-back triumphs.
And for Arsenal it would be a familiar path to the trophy. Like last year, Arsenal struggled past Championship opposition in the semifinals to set up a meeting with a side that just escaped relegation from the Premier League. Manager Arsène Wenger will now be desperately hoping that there is significantly less drama on Saturday than a year ago.
Arsenal went into the 2014 final against Hull City as overwhelming favorites but within eight minutes found themselves 2-0 down and staring at a latest calamitous failure on the big stage. Instead, Wenger’s side rallied and Aaron Ramsey’s extra-time goal at England’s national stadium brought joy and considerable relief as Arsenal secured their first trophy in nine years.
At the time there was much hope around the Emirates that the triumph would lead to the club regaining the winning mentality they possessed during Wenger’s first nine years of his reign, when they won the FA Cup on four occasions as well as claiming three Premier League titles. Yet, despite finishing third in the Premier League and going straight into the Champions League group phase, Arsenal still need to show that they can deliver convincingly on the big occasion.
In the FA Cup semifinals last month, just like last year against Wigan Athletic, Arsenal made hard work of delivering an anticipated victory against lower-league opposition. Again, Arsenal struggled to produce their best at Wembley and, despite a fine run of form in the Premier League, required an awful mistake from Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici to squeeze through. It followed a similarly limp display in exiting the Champions League at the hands of underdogs Monaco earlier this year. Only two weeks ago, ahead of a trip to take on Manchester United, Wenger spoke of the need to show that Arsenal have made progress because “in every game that is questioned.”
Certainly the stain of such heavy defeats away at Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton last season, and the more recent calamity against Monaco will take time to wash off.
A loss to Aston Villa in such a high-profile matchup would unquestionably be a blow far greater than simply failing to land a trophy. It would play a significant role in defining the mood of the club going into the summer and into next season. If Arsenal can’t beat an Aston Villa side that finished just a place clear of the relegation zone, serious questions will be raised over their ability to take the challenge to a phenomenally strong Chelsea team over a 38-game Premier League season or topple the very best in Europe.
On the other hand, a victory, and a convincing victory, would fuel plenty of optimism. Arsenal did make significant inroads into overcoming their big-game jinx this season when going to Manchester City and triumphing 2-0. And before an end-of-season dip, they were the Premier League’s undisputed form team in 2015. Taking the FA Cup trophy home without the need for further anxiety for Arsenal supporters would add weight to Wenger’s suggestion that the team needs only some tinkering this summer rather than a major rethink of approach to become serious contenders next campaign.
Yet Aston Villa will doubtless be confident of scoring an upset. They have already ripped up a script spectacularly in the semifinals when denying Steven Gerrard his birthday-farewell in the final with an impressive 2-1 win over Liverpool. The result was the undoubted high point of Tim Sherwood’s reign since taking over from Paul Lambert in February.
However, while he has achieved his brief of steering the club clear of the Premier League relegation zone, the club finished the season in disappointing fashion. An emphatic 6-1 defeat to Southampton was followed on the final day by a 1-0 home loss to bottom-of-the-table Burnley. While it would be understandable if the minds of their squad were already tuned toward Wembley, Sherwood now faces a challenge of switching their intensity back on as Villa go in search of their first FA Cup win since 1957.
Achieving that objective would be a major boon to a club that became European champions in 1982 but has struggled in recent seasons. When American Randy Lerner took over in 2006, there was an initial wave of investment, and under Martin O’Neil they recorded three successive sixth-place finishes. But having failed to get into the lucrative Champions League, the investment was scaled back and Gerard Houllier, Alan McLeish and Lambert all failed to revive the team’s fortunes.
In turning to former Tottenham coach Sherwood, Villa have opted for a manger with precious little experience but one whose pronounced enthusiasm has already won over a large section of the Aston Villa support. While a record of 16 points from 13 Premier League games hardly counts as a resounding success, but were here to keep Villa up and land the FA Cup he will have already made a sizable impact.
Prediction: This may be another anxiety-laden trip to Wembley for Arsenal. Aston Villa had much success in putting Liverpool under pressure early and the same approach could reap similar benefits against an Arsenal side that so often starts slowly in big games. With the pacey, physical Christian Benteke in prolific form, Villa have the ability to get goals and score another upset. But Sherwood has not yet shown an ability to excel in defensive tactics and Arsenal’s creative quality may eventually be decisive.
Predicted score: Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa