LONDON: History-chasing Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes his team will upset the form book and overcome their defensive injury crisis by beating Double hopefuls Chelsea in Saturday’s FA Cup final.
Despite Antonio Conte’s claims to the contrary, Chelsea are the favourites, having already swept to glory in the Premier League and with a fully fit squad at their manager’s disposal.
But Wenger says the example of the 2005 FA Cup final, when Arsenal weathered a battering by Manchester United to prevail on penalties in Cardiff, shows his team could upset the odds again.
“Of course I expect us to win,” said Wenger, who is still to commit himself to Arsenal beyond Saturday’s match.
“It’s true that in neutral opinions, Chelsea will be favourites. But we have gone into finals like that as well.
“I remember in 2005 we had no players available any more. I played with Dennis Bergkamp up front against Manchester United, who had (Cristiano) Ronaldo, (Wayne) Rooney, (Ryan) Giggs, (Paul) Scholes.
“We won, maybe without deserving it, but we won it.”
Wenger failed to secure Champions League qualification with Arsenal for the first time in 20 years, but he can still make history by becoming the first manager to win seven FA Cups.
Arsenal are also hoping to steal a march on United by winning a 13th FA Cup, which would make them the outright most successful team in the tournament’s 146-year history.
It is not the first time Wenger finds himself looking to the world’s oldest cup competition for solace, with the FA Cup having enabled him to apply silver finishes to the season in both 2014 and 2015.
But he has never before gone into a final knowing it is his last hope of salvaging anything from the season, after Arsenal missed out on the top four and fell by the wayside in the League Cup and Champions League.
While the Frenchman continues to be targeted by the vociferous ‘Wenger Out’ brigade, Arsenal’s season-ending run of seven wins in eight games means they approach the game with something of a spring in their step.
– Manchester tributes –
Their most recent Wembley outing will also stand them in good stead, with Arsenal having seen off Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City 2-1 in the semi-finals courtesy of an extra-time winner by Alexis Sanchez.
Wenger’s switch to a back three — mirroring Chelsea — has helped Arsenal find a second wind, but the defence he aligns beneath the Wembley arch will be far from a first-choice triumvirate.
With Laurent Koscielny banned, Gabriel injured and Shkodran Mustafi a doubt due to concussion, club captain Per Mertesacker is set to make his first start of the entire season.
Chelsea manager Conte hopes to emulate his Italian compatriot Carlo Ancelotti’s feat from the 2009-10 campaign by steering Chelsea to a league and FA Cup Double in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
But he believes Arsenal’s disappointment over their failure to secure a top-four finish makes them doubly dangerous opponents.
“We could start as underdogs because we won the league,” said the Italian, whose side overcame Tottenham 4-2 in the last four.
“We won the league and we celebrated the league. It was right to enjoy the moment, to celebrate the league.
“Instead, on the other side, we face a team who lost out on the possibility to play in the Champions League next season and they have only this possibility to save their season. We must pay great attention and focus.”
The game will be John Terry’s last in Chelsea’s colours and although he is not expected to start, he could bow out by lifting his 17th trophy as captain and 18th in total.
Monday’s terror attack in Manchester, which left 22 people dead, means there will be a heavy police presence around Wembley.
The players will wear black armbands and there will be a period of silence before kick-off.