Arsenal will go into Saturday’s FA Cup final as overwhelming favorites against a club playing in their first major final, Hull City. It presents an opportunity for Arsene Wenger’s men to end their nine-year trophy drought but the consequences of failure could be deeply felt. And memories will be all too fresh of Arsenal’s last final when they succumbed to similar-sized underdogs in Birmingham City in the League Cup three years ago.
Here’s how the two teams may lineup and how the game could pan out.
Both managers face selection dilemmas in goal. Although Wenger has not confirmed it, Lukasz Fabianski looks likely to start for Arsenal having done so throughout their run to the final. Wenger also said that he had no hesitation about playing the elder of his two Polish goalkeepers, even though he will be out of contract in a matter of weeks. Certainly, it would be harsh on Fabianski were he to miss out. He has performed admirably throughout the run, conceding just three goals in five matches.
Bruce, meanwhile, can again call upon Allan McGregor after the Scotland international returned from a near two-month absence on the final day of the Premier League season. McGregor impressed before his injury, though his inclusion would be tough on veteran Steve Harper.
Although there remains a doubt over the fitness of Thomas Vermaelen, it will not prevent Wenger from fielding his first-choice back four. Outside of the horror shows away at Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton, it is a defense which has been impressive this campaign and been one of the club’s major positives. Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker complement each other well in the middle, Kieran Gibbs has established himself as the preferable choice over Nacho Monreal, while Bacary Sagana has been one of the best right-backs in England. Sagna, in what could well be his last game for the club, could be a major attacking weapon if Hull elect to go with wing-backs, as he was when Liverpool adopted that approach last November.
Arguably Bruce’s biggest quandary before the final will be whether to go with four or five at the back. That decision could be swayed by whether center-back James Chester returns from a hamstring injury that ruled him out of Hull’s final two league games. However, the fact that Paul McShane is available again after a long absence increases the chances of three center-backs being deployed, with the idea of plugging up the holes that Arsenal like to thread balls through. The performance of one of their standout players this season, Curtis Davies, will be crucial to Hull’s success.
Whether with three or four central defenders behind them, Hull’s midfield will also try to deny Arsenal room in the middle. The signings of Jake Livermore and Tom Huddlestone from Tottenham have been crucial in Hull’s survival in the Premier League and the pair will be detailed to prevent Arsenal finding those pockets of space between the lines in which they so like to operate. Huddlestone is also the player most capable of providing the quality to help launch the counter-attacks that Hull are likely to rely upon. Out wide, Ahmed Elmohamady will be key if Hull are to threaten Arsenal offensively.
While Mikel Arteta’s lack of natural defensive skills have been exploited crudely at times this season, that is unlikely to be a factor against a Hull side that is far from the most dynamic. Alongside him, the Spaniard now has a player to provide the dynamism that Arsenal so missed in his absence, Aaron Ramsey. The Welsh midfielder instantly made a big difference upon his return to the side and he could be the key man at Wembley. In what is likely to be a tight match, Ramsey has the thrust and quality to provide an extra man breaking forward for Arsenal and disrupt Hull’s organized lines of defense. He also provides a space opener and target for the quality of Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla.
Hull will be without their two big January signings Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic, with the pair again cup-tied. The duo were not as prolific as the praise they have received suggests, scoring just eight goals in their 31 combined appearances, yet they are a definite upgrade on the rest of Hull’s striking talent. Long and Jelavic were still Hull's joint-top scorers this season in a side which scored more than only three teams in the Premier League. In their absence Yannick Sagbo is likely to lead the line, a player who can be a handful but for whom goal-scoring has never been a forte. Matty Fryatt will be fit in time to take his place alongside Sagbo, although Bruce could well opt to go with just one striker, potentially with Robert Koren in a supporting role.
For Arsenal, Lukas Podolski is in a rich vein of form on the left and Olivier Giroud has also been back among the goals of late, not coincidentally at the time that Ramsey has come back into the side. Ramsey offers the pace that Giroud needs around him and helps bring out the excellent link-up play of the France international. That combination could be pivotal to Arsenal lifting a huge weight from their shoulders and finally ending their trophy drought.