FA Cup: Three key battles between Arsenal, Chelsea
The FA Cup final usually brings out terrific entertainment for the fans, and this Saturday’s finale should be no different.
When Arsenal and Chelsea take the field at Wembley Stadium, it will be the last chance this season for some of the Premier League’s stars such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Chelsea and Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil for Arsenal to bring glory to their club.
[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]
The match features two teams heading in different directions. Chelsea, the Premier League champions are in the ascendency after a one-year hiatus out of European competition, while Arsenal finished outside the top-four places in the Premier League for the first time in 20 years under manager Arsene Wenger.
In addition, there’s plenty of other storylines to watch on the field, from whether it’s Costa, Sanchez and Ozil’s potential last matches with their respective teams to how Arsenal will deal without two of its three regular centerbacks they’ve used this season.
Here’s a look at three key battles on the field ahead of the FA Cup final:
Arsenal’s centerbacks vs. Diego Costa
Diego Costa may be a thorn in Chelsea’s side off the field when it comes to the constant speculation of a move away from Stamford Bridge, but on the field this season he’s been brilliant. Costa scored 20 goals in the Premier League and another goal in FA Cup action, and he contributes off the ball as well, drawing the defense in towards him while opening up space for teammates including Hazard and Willian.
Heading into Saturday, it’s unclear who on Arsenal will be tasked with marking Costa. Laurent Koscielny was issued a straight red card in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Everton and will miss the FA Cup final due to suspension while fellow centerback Gabriel left the field on a stretcher after suffering a knee injury. In addition, Shkodran Mustafi is still recovering from a concussion and is a doubt for Saturday.
That leaves Wenger with just Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding as healthy centerbacks, which could force Wenger to revert back to his usual four-man backline from the more recent three-man backline that’s been used.
Regardless of who Arsenal put out there, expect Costa to be at his best, attempting to physically dominate his opponent and get under their skin.
Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante vs. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez
Arsenal are at their best when they play through the middle of the field before finding runners out wide, setting up crossing attempts into the middle or perhaps another chance to play through the lines in the center of the field.
Standing in Arsenal’s playmaking duo of Mezut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s way are Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. Kante, as Riyad Mahrez saw last year, does so much of the dirty work defensively that he allows his teammates including Matic and Hazard to bomb forward and either create or finish goal-scoring opportunities.
Kante will have his hands full dealing with Ozil and Sanchez in midfield, and Matic may need to sit a bit deeper to cut off the passing lanes, potentially taking him out of Chelsea’s counter attack.
Eden Hazard vs. Hector Bellerin
For all the speed that Hazard possesses on the ball, there’s at least one player on Arsenal who can keep stride pace-for-pace.
With Hazard likely lining up on the left wing, Arsenal’s right wing back Hector Bellerin will likely face Hazard up one-on-one at both ends of the field, setting up a fun encounter. With Bellerin’s speed and ability to track back, he may be open to a few 40-yard springs into space down the right wing, knowing that Hazard probably won’t be in hot pursuit.
But if Bellerin doesn’t end up with the ball and there’s an Arsenal turnover, Hazard on his own or against a centerback on the left wing could be a nightmare for Arsenal to deal with.