This season’s FA Cup final sees two of the biggest clubs in English football do battle at Wembley on Saturday, with last year’s finalists and Premier League champions Chelsea taking on a club in Manchester United whose FA Cup haul is only surpassed by Arsenal’s.
It’s a big game for both managers too, representing potentially Antonio Conte’s last game in charge of the west Londoners and Jose Mourinho’s chance to have material reward for the progress his side have made this season, even if its inevitably been overshadowed by Manchester City’s immaculate campaign.
But which manager faces the bigger injury problems? Can history tell us anything about the likely result? How could the referee influence the match, and who enters Saturday’s clash in better form? Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the FA Cup final…
Chelsea and Manchester United have encountered each other 14 times throughout the history of the FA Cup and will match a record for final meetings this weekend, with Saturday being their third occasion.
There has, however, been a considerable imbalance in this fixture, United claiming twice as many wins as the Blues, keeping two more clean sheets and scoring eleven more goals. In fact, Chelsea won just one of their first ten FA Cup clashes against United, conceding 21 times.
That imbalance has reversed in recent years though; United have failed to win all of the last four meetings, losing three of them and being held to a replay in the other.
Nonetheless, it’s still United who are more experienced and successful at this stage of the competition. They’ve lifted more FA Cups than Chelsea by almost double, and have a slightly stronger final win rate by 6%.
There isn’t a great deal to choose between Chelsea and Manchester United in terms of recent form. In fact, their last six games across all competitions have brought exactly the same number of wins, draws, defeats, goals and clean sheets. The quality of opposition has been well balanced too, both facing a member of the top four as their toughest opponents, and only one player for either team – Olivier Giroud – has scored more than once during that time.
The big concern for Chelsea, however, is that United got over their somewhat inevitable pre-final slump some time ago, losing to Brighton at the Amex Stadium. They responded with a more respectable scoreless draw at the London Stadium and grabbed a confidence-boosting win on the final day of the Premier League season.
In contrast, Chelsea’s last two outings have produced severely disappointing performances – a 1-1 draw with Huddersfield at Stamford Bridge, followed by a shock 3-0 defeat to Newcastle last time out.
Those key differences to their end-of-season results could make all the difference heading into the weekend.
If there’s one thing Conte and Mourinho need to bear in mind about Michael Oliver heading into Saturday’s showpiece, it’s that he’s easily one of the strictest referees in the Premier League. In fact, the 33-year-old ranks in the top seven from the 20 referees to work in the top flight this term for fouls per game, fouls per tackle, penalties per game and red cards per game – which paints a pretty clear picture.
That probably suits Chelsea a lot better than United for a few key reasons. Firstly, United have averaged more fouls per game than Chelsea this season and picked up 22 more yellow cards. Secondly, the Red Devils’ record for conceding goals from set pieces this term is actually pretty poor, their ten being four worse than the Blues’ six and just two less than they’ve conceded in open play.
In slightly better news for United though, they’re yet to lose a game with Oliver officiating this season – Chelsea, in contrast, are yet to win from three attempts.
Conte has only one fresh injury doubt for the FA Cup final, with Emerson Palmieri facing a late rate for fitness. But it’s likely the January signing wouldn’t have started this one anyway; Marcos Alonso is one of the most important players in Chelsea’s system and was tellingly rested against Newcastle last time out. The Spaniard is one of three expected changes from the side that lost 3-0 at St. James’ Park.
But the real question is how Conte will set up his team. Willian is undoubtedly one of Chelsea’s most consistent performers and an incredible asset in big games due to his ability to provide a crucial outlet on the counter-attack.
But because of the sheer power of United’s midfield, the Brazilian looks set to miss out, with under-fire summer signing Tiemoue Bakayoko keeping his place to complete a three-man engine room. Willian will most likely have to settle for a spot on the bench for the sake of 3-5-2.
Mourinho has a few doubts to contend with that could severely impact United’s chances of victory on Saturday – specifically star frontman Romelu Lukaku.
However, we believe uncertainty over his availability could be simply a ploy to throw off the Blues, with The Sun claiming he could have played last time out against Watford after having surgery in Belgium. Aside from that, fellow doubts Maroaune Fellaini and Anthony Martial remain important impact players that Mourinho would no doubt like to have on his bench.
Those three players excepted, the rest of United’s starting XI largely picks itself at this moment in time. Ander Herrera has provided the best balance alongside Paul Pogba in midfield, Alexis Sanchez has made the left wing berth his own, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are the first-choice full-backs and Nemanja Matic and Jesse Lingard have been amongst United’s most dependable players this season.
That does, however, mean no start for fan favourite Marcus Rashford, despite the youngster’s impressive scoring record in big games against high-quality opposition. The England international, like Willian, will need to settle for making an impact off the bench.