The FA Cup has undoubtedly lost some prestige in recent years, but it’s never been more important to Manchester United. A win over Chelsea on Saturday afternoon would redeem an up-and-down season, one that currently wobbles between tangible progress in many categories and disappointment in both the Premier League and Champions League.
Plus, the club could claim its 13th FA Cup title, equaling Arsenal’s record mark.
Last season, United’s cup run ended in a contentious quarterfinal at Stamford Bridge. That’s actually the third time in eleven years that Chelsea knocked the Reds out of the FA Cup. And, yes, that includes the 2007 final when José Mourinho still patrolled the Chelsea touchline.
But Saturday is the perfect chance to turn the FA Cup table on the Blues.
Practically everyone in the football world expects Antonio Conte to depart Stamford Bridge at season’s end — and it looks like his players have started their summer vacation a little early. How else to explain head-scratchingly poor performances in their last two matches?
Chelsea actually beat Liverpool on May 6 to rekindle faint hopes of clawing their way back into the Premier League’s top four. But they followed up that big win with a draw against Huddersfield Town and a lopsided defeat at Newcastle on the season’s final day. Conte’s men were still alive for the last Champions League place and could barely muster any effort at all.
Following the 3-0 debacle at St. James’ Park, Conte fumed about his players’ performance: “For the next game, for sure we must change. If we think we can play a game like this in the final of the FA Cup, then we don’t have a chance. We have six days to change our approach, desire, and will to fight.”
Thankfully, that’s not something José Mourinho has to worry about. Manchester United haven’t exactly roared into this final in peak form, but at least their effort cannot be questioned.
Hardly a free-scoring side to begin with, the Reds have really missed Romelu Lukaku. The star forward — with 27 goals in his first United season — went down with an ankle knock last month, forcing him to miss the last three matches.
While there hasn’t been any official word on Lukaku’s availability for Saturday, all signs point to him starting. He returned to Carrington this week after some rehab time in Belgium and traveled with the United squad to London.
The other two injury concerns — Anthony Martial and Marouane Fellaini — also made the trip to Wembley. Although more of an impact sub than surefire starter, Martial would be a huge loss if he cannot suit up against Chelsea. The French winger provides instant offense off the bench and demands special attention from opposing defenses whenever he’s on the pitch. For an attack that’s looked moribund in recent weeks, Martial could make a big difference.
He was in line to start against Watford in last weekend’s league finale, but missed out after suffering a knee injury during training on Friday. While Mourinho sounds cautiously optimistic about Lukaku, his comments on Martial seem more doubtful.
If Martial can’t make it on Saturday, United might need to rely on their Wembley hero once again. Jesse Lingard has scored big goals in United’s last two finals at the national stadium, including the winner in the 2016 FA Cup final. Add in the tactical discipline that Mourinho cherishes and Lingard is a likely starter on Saturday.
The boss’s biggest concern, though, is Eden Hazard. Since taking over at United, Mourinho has tasked one of his midfielders with shadowing the brilliant Belgian and pressuring him at every opportunity. Ander Herrera usually draws the assignment, but Scott McTominay did a fine job in that role back in February’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford.
But, for a cup final that will define United’s season, it’s hard to believe that Mourinho will choose a 21-year-old neophyte instead of the veteran Herrera.
Even after a lackluster run-in, the manager has no worries about his squad’s mentality. “The last week of work is for a final, so we don’t need more motivation than what we have,” Mourinho explained.
Both clubs really need this win. Chelsea just wrapped up a disastrous season — complete with a non-existent league title defense, finishing outside the Champions League places, and now facing a summer of fending off advances for Hazard.
United’s 2017/18 season has been polarizing, but at least outpaces Conte’s Chelsea. There’s a lot to be happy with, even if the squad never quite reached the heights that its early form promised. Still, ending the year without a trophy would leave a sour taste. A win at Wembley, though, would mean three cups in Mourinho’s two seasons and a solid base from which to mount a title challenge next season.