We conclude our Pre-Match Briefing for the final game of the season by looking at how the FA Cup final might be decided at Wembley today...
Antonio Conte has challenged his players to muster one more time the hunger to overcome Arsenal in the scrap for the last remaining silverware of the season.
Comparing Chelsea with our north London neighbours this season, the Blues netted 85 times in comparison to 77 for the Gunners, and conceded 33 against their 44. Despite an 18-point gap after the final reckoning, honours are even in the league – each side winning their home game – and in a one-off encounter anything could happen.
It is likely Diego Costa will retain his position at the apex of the attack. The Spain striker may not be the Premier League Golden Boot winner, but he was the most valuable goalscorer in terms of points earned.
However, Michy Batshuayi has been pressing his case for a start. The Belgian hit an impressive four goals in three games, at least one of which could be described as priceless. Pedro and ever-present Willian, though, are the Blues’ top scorers in the FA Cup this season, with four apiece.
Chelsea are the league’s top converters of set-plays into goals, and also lead the way in effective counter-attacks. Yet Arsenal are among the top flight’s best at defending both those situations.
Conte has a settled team with few personnel liable to change match-to-match. The game may well hinge on which system Arsene Wenger settles for in light of the Gunners’ injuries and suspension.
In recent games he has adopted a tactical approach he initially rejected on his arrival at Arsenal 1,000-odd games earlier. He went for a 4-4-2 formation at Highbury and he stuck rigidly to it right up until April this year.
The Frenchman recently adopted the 3-4-3 used by Conte but there was no guarantee it would be a good fit. It has worked, though, to the extent that the defence has been shored up, Rob Holding and Laurent Koscielny being the standout performers. With a back four, both full-backs attacked but their flanks could be exposed. With a three, they have more security behind them. The 3-4-3 also frees up forwards such as Mesut Ozil.
However, in the recent north London derby Arsenal’s 3-4-3 was found wanting because, unusually for the system, Spurs managed regularly to outnumber the Gunners on the flanks.
Arsenal’s central midfielders, the equivalent of Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic and double player of the year N’Golo Kante, were Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey. Wenger tends to use at least one attack-minded midfielder in that zone.
This may be immaterial if the sudden lack of available bodies in central defence forces a reversion to the back four, and it was interesting to see Per Mertesacker come on for his first appearance of the season last Sunday. There is a chance the German will skipper the Gunners in his first start for 13 months. Shkodran Mustafi is another central defence possible absentee.
In a related point, the Gunners conceded 10 Premier League goals from penalty kicks this season. No top-four side let in more than three.
Assuming Alexis Sanchez is fit enough to start, Wenger’s other big decision concerns the attack. Does he opt for the mobility and stealth of Danny Welbeck or the physical presence and aerial threat of Olivier Giroud?
On the Wembley acreage offsides can be an issue and this area has been a problem for the Gunners: they have been penalised 95 times in the league, compared to Chelsea’s 64.
Remember that up to four substitutes can be used in this game should it stretch into extra-time (a maximum of three can be used over the regular 90 minutes). Conte substitutes accounted for 12 of the champions’ league goals.
Antonio Conte has a full squad from which to choose.
Arsenal’s central defence has been dealt a potential triple blow with Gabriel Paulista sustaining a knee injury last Sunday and Laurent Koscielny seeing straight red for a reckless tackle. Both will miss the final, while fellow centre-back Mustafi (illness) and left-back Kieran Gibbs (thigh) are doubts.
Also absent is long-term casualty Santi Cazorla, although midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and influential forward Alexis Sanchez (both hamstring) are expected to be available.
By Rick Glanvill