Arsenal v Chelsea
Saturday 01 August, 17:30
Live on BBC One
Arteta must banish spectre of failure
In a surreal atmosphere a long way from home, many of Arsenal's beaten players stared into the middle-distance, while others sunk to the turf at Baku's Olympic Stadium. Chelsea had just shredded the Gunners 4-1 in the 2019 Europa League final, a result that proved to be the beginning of the end for Unai Emery as manager. The golden ticket that victory would have brought was snatched away, and the hollow, limp performance reinforced the clichés about Arsenal's fragility and lack of mental strength.
These are tropes that Emery's successor Mikel Arteta is fighting against, as he bids to rebuild a club he once captained with distinction. He has won nine of his 20 league games, losing five, and the Gunners have leaked just 21 goals in that spell. In the Europa League, Arsenal suffered a dramatic and careless exit to Olympiakos, but the FA Cup run has featured hugely impressive wins over Sheffield United and Manchester City. The victory against City was a display of ruthless opportunism - Arteta's side had just 29% possession, but all four of their shots were on target, including Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's beautifully-taken brace.
Aubameyang misfired in Baku last year, but he is so often reliable. He fell just short in the race for the Premier League Golden Boot (he scored 22 goals, Jamie Vardy got 23) and he is the fastest player in Arsenal's history to have racked up 50 Premier League goals. Given that Arsenal have featured legendary goal-getters like Ian Wright and Thierry Henry, that is some achievement.
Arteta is without injured centre-backs Shkodran Mustafi, Calum Chambers and Pablo Mari, so left-back Sead Kolasinac may once again be pressed into service on the left of a three-man defence. Emi Martinez continues to deputise for Bernd Leno in goal, Matteo Guendouzi is out of favour, and Mesut Özil is short of fitness.
Top-four place gives Blues breathing space
There's an argument to say you only really see the true quality of a team when it's under serious pressure, when it's one step away from disaster. Chelsea went into Sunday's clash with Wolves in the knowledge that after months of occupying the Premier League's top four, they could have been kicked out of the queue for European football's VIP club just as they were reaching the front door. Instead of folding under the pressure and waiting for Manchester United to do them a favour, the Blues produced a front-foot display laced with quality. They pressed effectively, scored an outstanding opener via Mason Mount's unstoppable free-kick, and then showed ruthlessness to add a second goal moments later. It takes a lot to restrict a team as motivated and proficient as Wolves to one shot on target and an Infogol xG figure of 0.21.
Manager Frank Lampard knows all about passing high-pressure tests of nerve and skill, and Sunday's win is a huge step forward for him personally. For all his talk of transition and low external expectations, make no mistake, Lampard was expected and required to deliver Champions League qualification. Having done so, he can fully focus on trying to win a trophy he lifted four times as a Chelsea player. As a manager, there is a Wembley ghost to lay to rest, as Lampard's Derby County were beaten by Aston Villa in last season's Championship Play-Off final.
Lampard may stick with the 3-4-3 formation he has used recently, matching up with Arsenal, although he admits a back three didn't work against the Gunners in late December, as he abandoned it to rescue a 2-1 comeback win. If he does select 3-4-3, he may name an unchanged line-up from the Wolves game, with goalkeeper Willy Caballero likely to get the nod once again ahead of Kepa. Willian may return to the squad after injury.
Chelsea too short to take the prize?
The Opta stats show Chelsea have had a tough time against Arsenal in the FA Cup. They have lost both finals they have played against them (2002 and 2017, Chelsea's only failures in the final in the last nine attempts) and they have won just one of the last 13 meetings between the clubs in this competition.
While such a historical hoodoo doesn't have huge relevance here, it is worth looking at the clubs' two meetings this term, which both featured Arteta and Lampard at the helm. Arsenal were 1-0 up with seven minutes left at the Emirates before a classic Gunners collapse saw them lose 2-1, but they did show grit and determination in the reverse fixture, twice coming back from a goal down with ten men to draw 2-2 at Stamford Bridge.
I do think Chelsea are currently the better side, but I can't get on board with backing them at 2.22 to win inside 90 minutes here, especially when you consider what Arsenal did to Sheffield United and Manchester City in the last two rounds.
If you think Arsenal can at least push the final to extra time, you could back Arsenal/Draw in the Double Chance market and combine it with an Over 1.5 Goals bet at 2.16 on the Sportsbook. If you want to be bolder, Arsenal are a hefty 3.55 to simply win the final inside 90 minutes.
Showpiece clash to be lit up with goals
Whoever lifts the trophy, I believe we'll see goals at Wembley. The two league meetings featured seven goals between them, and both sides feature more quality in attack than they do in defence.
If we look at the clubs' last 12 games each, seven of Arsenal's and eight of Chelsea's have seen an Over 2.5 Goals bet land, and that's the way I'm heading at 1.90.
Auba to make his mark
Aubameyang has scored in four of his last eight appearances, and is still finding the net in a wider role than the one he prefers. He has scored against Chelsea this season, and is 11/8 to score on Saturday.
The in-form Olivier Giroud has scored in six of his last seven games, and is 6/4 to score against his old club. It's also worth considering Mason Mount at 7/2 - he scored against Wolves and in the semi-final against Manchester United.