An intriguing FA Cup final sees Arsenal aim to win the competition for a record 12th time against an Aston Villa side for whom success would be their first since 1957.
Arsenal will be the favourites to retain the crown they won in dramatic fashion by beating Hull City a year ago, but they never seem to make it easy for themselves at Wembley. The semi-final against Championship strugglers Reading was a prime example as the Gunners struggled for fluency and needed an enormous goalkeeping error to win in extra time.
Before that, progress had been fairly serene, comfortably seeing off Hull in the third round and then going on to have too much for second tier duo Brighton & Hove Albion and Middlesbrough. Their major test came at Manchester United in the quarter-finals, but a strong performance on the night and Danny Welbeck’s winner saw them through.
The Premier League campaign ended in somewhat stuttering fashion for Arsene Wenger’s men, but they did at least end with a convincing win over West Bromwich Albion. A hat-trick for Theo Walcott has given the boss a dilemma, and it will be interesting to see if the 25-year-old has done enough to earn a place in the starting XI.
Although first-choice striker Olivier Giroud may trouble an occasionally lightweight Villa defence with his physical presence, Walcott’s pace could prove more of a decisive factor. Jack Wilshere will also be gunning for a start along with Aaron Ramsey, the man for the big occasion. Meanwhile, Alexis Sanchez will be determined to end a fine first season in England with a goal and a trophy.
The fact that Arsenal won both Premier League meetings this season by an aggregate score of 8-0 does not bode well for Villa, but it must be remembered that current boss Tim Sherwood was in charge for neither of those games. He has inspired the West Midlands club to this final and to top-flight safety; a feat which looked doubtful for some time.
Narrow victories over Blackpool and Bournemouth began their run to the final in January, before Sherwood’s arrival was marked with a win against rivals Leicester City. Jubilant scenes met the quarter-final triumph over West Bromwich Albion, while arguably their best showing of the season in all competitions saw them overcome Liverpool in the semis.
It was a tactical master-class that beat the Reds, in a game where key duo Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph were on top form. They must reach that level again here if Villa are to win their first major trophy for decades.
Benteke is the Premier League’s form striker and will torment the Arsenal backline, but the defence must be tighter than it has in recent weeks. The 6-1 thrashing they received at Southampton came as a result of kamikaze defending which was punished at every opportunity. Sherwood will be desperate to avoid a repeat of that here.
Welbeck remains out for Arsenal and so will not feature in his first FA Cup final. However, Mathieu Debuchy, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta are all in contention.
Shay Given will be in goal for Aston Villa, who are hopeful over the fitness of Aly Cissokho, Jores Okore and Kieran Richardson, but Ciaran Clark definitely misses out.