A couple of years back, one of the FA Cup promotions on television had a theme – “Anything Could Happen”. This season’s tournament was a sort of an embodiment of those words. Lincoln City’s run up to the quarter finals, Sutton United’s run up to the last 16 and Wolves dumping Liverpool out earlier in the tournament. Not just this season’s results, but all of the last four finals have been contested (and once won) by at least one team that was not in the top ten of the Premier League at that time. But this mini-era of the underdogs seems to be ending with four of the top-six in the English hierarchy competing this weekend at Wembley for a place in the final. Fourth-placed City take on sixth-placed Arsenal in what promises to be an interesting encounter.
With the calls for Arsene Wenger’s ouster growing shriller by the day and Gunners’ form wobbling in the couple of months, it is fair to say that Wenger’s men come into this semifinal as underdogs. When a long-term manager has to adopt a tactic (three at the back) that was last adopted by the club 20 years back, it is safe to say that the club is slowly running out of ideas – or players. The injury list at Arsenal is competing quite well with the growing list of Wexiteers. Although Wenger’s men have had an upper hand over Manchester City in the last few encounters, this contest promises to be tough for them and they will have to muster all their reserves of talent and will power to overcome the Blues.
Manchester City might have had higher targets at the start of the season. But now FA Cup is the only silverware the Guardiola can win in his first season and his team is going to be very motivated to win it. While City have underperformed against Arsenal slightly, especially recently, they come into this fixture in better form. Their captain is back from injury and is scoring. Vincent Kompany’s return lends strength to the Blues’ defense. Their Brazilian starlet Gabriel Jesus is also back early from his fracture and is traveling to London for the game. Guardiola will be quite confident about his side’s chances, although he will give the usual respect that Gunners deserve due to their record in the tournament.
For Arsenal, David Ospina (back), Danny Welbeck (toe), Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez (thigh) are all unavailable, while Jeff Reine-Adelaide (ankle) and Santi Cazorla (Achilles) are out for the season. This could mean that Wenger sends out a three-man central defense again, after having used it successfully against Middlesbrough last week. However, he could bring back Theo Walcott and Hector Bellerin back into the team to provide pace on the wings.
For Manchester City, Gabriel Jesus could make a minor appearance but John Stones remains unavailable due to a muscular injury. Other than this, Guardiola can pick the team he wants and in fact faces a challenge of too many options especially in the attack.
- This will be the fourth FA Cup tie between the clubs, and the first since 1971 when Arsenal won in the fifth round en route to lifting the trophy.
- Arsenal’s only defeat in their last 21 FA Cup matches came against Watford in last season’s quarter-final. They have won the trophy twice in last three seasons.
- The Gunners have reached the FA Cup semi-finals for the 29th time, a competition record.
- Manchester City have progressed from each of their last eight FA Cup semi-finals, most recently in 2013 against Chelsea. Their last defeat at this stage was in 1932 against Arsenal.
- City have alternated between victory and defeat in their last seven appearances at Wembley, beating Liverpool in a penalty shootout last time out in the 2016 League Cup final.
- Pep Guardiola won his only previous game as a manager at Wembley, when his Barcelona side beat Manchester United 3-1 in the 2011 Champions League final.
Although Olivier Giroud is likely to be in the team for Sunday’s semifinal, the main goal threat from Arsenal will be their Chilean talisman. Alexis Sanchez loves to score at Wembley, having scored five in four appearances and Arsene Wenger must be hoping that he can stretch that streak a bit longer. He was suffering a slightly lean patch (more than 300 minutes without scoring) of form but a goal at Riverside on Monday ended that patch. With Arsenal defense promising leaks, it is imperative that Arsenal play attacking football and Sanchez will be key in their attacking movement.
Even though Pep Guardiola plans to include Gabriel Jesus in the squad, it is quite unlikely that the Brazilian will straight away displace Aguero at the top. Especially, considering Aguero’s form in this season’s FA Cup and his overall goal scoring form. He has scored four goals in four matches in FA Cup this season, and has scored six goals in the last seven appearances for City. He will be keen to add to his tally and Guardiola might have included Jesus in the squad to keep Aguero sharp (and Wenger guessing).
Both the teams come into this fixture quite desperate to win. Progress to the final and an eventual victory there is perhaps the only scenario in which Wenger’s tenure at Emirates could be extended, albeit that too is quite unlikely. But Arsene Wenger would want to go out with a trophy win. On the other side, Guardiola would want to win the only available trophy in his first season at Manchester City. As neither side will lack motivation, it will all come down to the ability. I feel both are quite evenly matched in attack but in defense, it seems that Arsenal is weaker. City’s attack should be able to find enough gaps in the Gunners’ defense to win the semifinal in 90 minutes. For Arsenal this year, FA Cup does not seem to be ‘something that could happen’.
Arsenal 1-2 Manchester City