Will it be a cracker in FA Cup’s weirdest final?

In the cavernous, eerie confines of an empty Wembley at half-past midnight on Sunday morning (Malaysian time), the 139th English FA Cup final could serve up a cracker.

Two rookie managers, two dodgy defences and two explosive attacks. Not as mouth-watering as a Manchester derby? The ‘David Luiz derby’ could be tastier.

After Arsenal and Chelsea respectively prevailed over City and United against the odds in the semi-finals, the controversial Brazilian defender is the joker in the pack.

Whether he’s the cool dude that marshalled the Gunners’ back line to frustrate Pep’s pass masters or the hothead that Chelsea dumped on their neighbours could well have a significant bearing on the outcome.

But wherever you look there are fascinating sub-plots: not least the battle between young bosses who have both made healthy starts after receiving the managerial equivalent of hospital passes.

When Frank Lampard was handed the reins from Maurizio Sarri, the big spenders faced a two-transfer window ban. It was the first time since Roman Abramovich arrived in 2003 that Chelsea couldn’t splash the roubles.

Adding to the frustration was that Lamps had an extra £90m burning a hole in his pocket after star man Eden Hazard departed for Real Madrid.

But the ban, later reduced to one window on appeal, turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Forced to use homegrown youngsters instead of parking them around Europe’s second-tier clubs, Lampard found he had an excellent crop. And he was the ideal man to nurture them.

As a club legend, he was worshipped by the kids but, at 41, he was no dinosaur either. The result has seen a bit of an adventure that’s ending with qualification for the Champions League and a place in the FA Cup final.

While Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abrahams and Ruben Loftus-Cheek have all played for England, Reece James is knocking on the door.

But capturing the headlines and grabbing vital goals of late have been the rejuvenated Olivier Giroud and exciting American Christian Pulisic.

With old warrior Willian playing for a three-year contract, Chelsea will take some stopping.

Indeed, it makes you wonder where all the new arrivals will fit in. Already on board are Germany striker Timo Werner and Morocco attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech while the club are closing in on Kai Havertz, who could be the long-term replacement for Hazard, and attacking leftback Ben Chilwell.

For all the promise of goals, Chelsea fans would feel more reassured if they signed some defenders – especially a goalkeeper – and this could be their undoing on Sunday.

Lampard has already acknowledged ‘we need taller players’, but the tallest order is finding a goalkeeper.

Lamps could not have made a greater plea for one if he’d used a megaphone when he dropped the world’s most expensive glove man, Kepa Arrizabalaga, for last weekend’s crucial final league game against Wolves. Replacement Willy Caballero, 38, is a renowned penalty saver but it doesn’t make up for his age or Dracula approach to crosses.

The duel between the posts sees a fascinating clash between two Argentinian keepers at opposite ends of their careers. If Caballero is of pension age, Emiliano Martinez is a late starter.

Despite a decade at Arsenal, he’s barely dirtied his gloves and is now 27. But since getting his chance after Bernd Leno got injured at Brighton in June, he’s been a revelation.

But he has benefitted from his manager’s stiffening of the ranks in front of him. Arteta, unlike his mentor, Pep Guardiola, does not believe possession is nine tenths of football.

Arsenal had less than 30% against City but it was enough for star striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score a clinical brace.

Like Lampard, Arteta is very much his own man. He has even got a tune out of the much-maligned Shkodran Mustafi, who will be sorely missed because of injury.

Still, another to improve under his tutelage is Granit Xhaka, a vital cog in defensive midfield now he’s curbing his rasher instincts.

But it’s up front where Arsenal have the real danger men. Besides Aubameyang, whom they are desperate to keep, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe are making the most of the scraps that come their way.

And then there’s the floating role of versatile Bukayo Saka, 18, another outstanding young English talent.

It should be an intriguing clash, with as many contrasts as there are similarities between the two clubs, both at the rebuilding stage.

What could be significant for the future is that the gulf in philosophies is even greater between the clubs’ respective owners than it is between their managers.

Where Abramovich appears to be rekindling his interest, albeit still at a distance, by sanctioning a massive spending spree, Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke could pass for Scrooge.

Seldom seen in London, he leaves it all to his son, Josh, and will spend little of the reported £300m he made during lockdown.

In contrast to Abramovich, who never misses a match, ‘Silent Stan’ rarely watches one.

While Arsenal, slight underdogs, can upset the odds at Wembley, Chelsea look to be the ones to make more noise in the long term.

 

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.