Both Manchester United and Chelsea are seeking to salvage their season when the two clash for the final game of the English football season—the FA Cup final— at Wembley Stadium on Saturday night.
The Red Devils have been functional at best, turgid at worst as they finished a disappointing second behind derby rivals Manchester City in the Premier League but Chelsea’s season has been catastrophic any way you look at it.
Defending champions Antonio Conte’s men were, but it quickly became apparent that a successfully title defence was not on the cards.
Their Italian manager had been at loggerheads with the board since the summer and some inexplicable transfer decisions didn’t exactly smoothen things and all signs point towards a summer exit.
Neither the Red Devils nor the Blues found much solace in Europe either, which leaves them with the oldest cup competition in the world.
Chelsea have dominated the FA Cup in recent years, but will seek to avoid the ignominy of losing two finals on the trot after last season’s surprise loss at the hands of Arsenal.
It’s not a stretch to say that Conte’s job is on the line, but the backlash for his ‘nemesis’ —Jose Mourinho— would be immense as well and the Portuguese would be desperate to end a ‘difficult’ season on a high.
Concerns over Romelu Lukaku’s fitness continue to circle as the Belgian is racing against time to feature against his former side.
Without him, United have scored just once in three Premier League games, having lost two of those encounters.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have failed to make the most of Lukaku’s injury and truth be told, United look toothless without their £75 million man.
However, they can take solace from the fact that January signing Alexis Sanchez has an outstanding record at Wembley (eight goals in eight ties) and the Chilean is the likely candidate to lead the line in case Lukaku can’t recover in time.
The hardworking Jesse Lingard has, against all odds, become a regular starter and his big-game displays make him a danger man for sure while at the back, David de Gea is in the midst of his finest season in a United shirt.
The FA Cup may have lost some of its sheen in recent years, but the final is always a highlight fixture in the English football calendar and in games such as these, the glare on players like Paul Pogba is even more intense.
The flashy Frenchman’s not had the best of seasons, but hasn’t hard the worst either. Ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he could definitely do with a MOTM display in London.
Mourinho has a selection dilemma at the back for Eric Bailly, arguably United’s best central defender, has been fit for a while now but the Portuguese has been keeping him on the bench to give others (who are playing at the World Cup, unlike the Ivorian) a chance.
With Chris Smalling dropped by England, will he remain in United’s starting XI?
The smart money’s on Mourinho to send out his strongest lineup for there’s too much at stake here now.
Talking Corner | “Finishing the season off with a trophy is always good and would put us in good spirits for next season” Manchester United forward Marcus Ashford (www.manutd.com)
Injury concerns: Romelu Lukaku (ankle), Marouane Fellaini (knee), Anthony Martial (unspecified)
Likely starting XI: (4-3-3)* David de Gea, Ashley Young, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Alexis Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku.
Eden Hazard has been wildly inconsistent this season and Alvaro Morata has been, somewhat unfairly, written off as the flop of the season.
Olivier Giroud’s form has been encouraging, but if the Blues cannot find a way to motivate their mercurial Belgian winger, they might as well resign themselves to losing a second cup final on the bounce.
In Pedro and Willian, Chelsea possess quality wingers, but they too have been far too inconsistent this season.
N’Golo Kante has been the sole shining light in midfield, while the likes of Tiemoue Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas have flattered to deceive and with so many players underperforming, it’s easy to see why United are slight favourites for the encounter in the English capital.
There are issues galore at the back, with Thibaut Courtois another player said to be disillusioned with life under Conte/at Chelsea while their erstwhile steely defence has leaked goals left right and centre.
Still, to reach the final two years in a row would mean that they are doing something right and with United not exactly getting crowds off their feet, this is still anybody’s final.
Talking Corner | “In football, when you win you are the best and when you lose they doubt you, it’s as simple as that. As much as we talk about the beautiful game, which I love, nowadays it’s about winning on the day. People then forget if you did it in a good way, a lucky way, a defensive way, people forget about that unfortunately.” Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas (www.chelseafc.com)
Injury concerns: Danny Drinkwater (calf), David Luiz (knee)
Likely starting XI: (3-5-2) Thibaut Courtois, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, Gary Cahill, Marcos Alonso, Victor Moses, N’Golo Kante, Cesc Fabregas, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud.