Its Cup Time! Previewing The Europa League & The FA Cup Finals
No not Lord Stanley’s Cup, although that is highly entertaining too. I am talking Cup time in Europe. There are a bunch of them coming to an end soon but I want to talk about the big three. The FA Cup and the Champions League and Europa League finals. So here’s a look at the two finals coming up this week. We’ll do a separate more in depth look at the Champions League final in another article.
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Europa League Final
Tomorrow, from Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden Manchester United and Ajax square off at 1:30 eastern and the game is on Fox Sports 1. These two have met four times previously in European competitions with each winning twice. Neither team comes in having been playing particularly strong. Man U has only one win and two draws in its last five matches while Ajax has earned three wins to go with two losses.
Man U has to be a tired team. After the second leg of the semi-final, they had played 12 matches in 42 days. That is an incredibly rough stretch even for such a deep club as the Red Devils. Add in injuries to Zlatan Ibrahmovic, Marcos Rojo and Ashley Young and the suspension to center back Eric Bailly leaves them missing key cogs upfront and in the back. But in the absence of Ibrahmovic, youngster Marcus Rashford has played very well. As disappointing as their 6th place finish in the EPL is, they still have had a strong season. Winning both the Charity Shield and English Football League cups and a chance to earn their way to next years Champions League have their fans excited. Man U started their Europa League campaign by beating eventual Dutch league champions Feyenoord and can end it dispatching the second place team Ajax.
But Ajax is going to push Man U to the limits. Both physically and mentally. Ajax will be without two starters as well with both Daley Sinkgraven and Nick Viergever are out with an injury and suspension, respectively. Lasse Schöne will likely get the start in midfield for his dangerous set pieces. And if that is the case he will be the ONLY player in their starting XI over the age of 25. They are young and hungry and that is a dangerous combination. The question for them will be can they keep their heads in the game and not lose their composure?
So how does Ajax win? Their task is simple. Push forward and score goals. Use their youth and energy levels to push an older and tired club till they just run out of gas. The hard part of course is to not get caught flat footed in the back when Man U counters.
So how does Man U win? Their task is also simple. Play compact in the back, press with their midfield, and counter quickly but pick and choose when they do so.
So who does win? In the end I think the nod goes to Man U. The difference? The coaches. Peter Bosz has done very well with the young Ajax squad and will have them prepared as best they can be. But they are young and inexperienced at this level. Jose Mourinho, the Man U manager, will exploit that. It seems that he mapped out a strategy several months ago to get Man U to next year’s Champions League and its close to coming to fruition. Oh and one last thing. Mourinho has managed teams in 13 competition finals. His squads have won an incredible 11 of those 13.
The FA Cup
The Cup that started it all will be played for the 136th time this Saturday. Kickoff will be at 12:30 eastern from historic Wembley Stadium and the match will air on FOX. The match features London based rivals, Chelsea and Arsenal. The two clubs come in facing totally different fan attitudes.
Chelsea fans are a happy lot with the Blues having just won the EPL in outstanding fashion with a final record of 30-3-5 amassing a seven point lead over second place Tottenham. Their goal differential of plus 52 was second best in the EPL as the Blues displayed a strong balance between attacking soccer (and scoring goals) while maintaining a solid defense and only allowing 33 goals in their 38 matches.
Across town, Gunner fans are less than happy with the teams fifth place finish in the EPL. While they finished the season on a run…..reeling on five straight EPL wins, it wasn’t enough to get them into the top four and a place in next year’s Champions League, the first time in 20 years! And that has not sat well with their fans. In fact there is a growing call for the club to not extend manager Arsene Wenger’s contract when it expires soon. Time will tell but the current feeling is that a win or a strong showing on Saturday will keep him in charge. The English love to bet on their soccer and right now the betting is in favor of Arsenal extending his contract. Unfortunately, the betting is also siding with Chelsea where it ultimately counts. On the pitch this Saturday. So just how does this match look?
Both team ended the season with five match winning streaks. Arsenal scoring 13 goals and conceding two, while Chelsea scored 16 and conceded four. Both impressive runs to finish a long season. The Gunners love to attack in fact having recently moved to a three man back line. Certainly can’t argue with their results down the stretch. But then they haven’t been playing a well disciplined team like Chelsea. Arsenal played a very physical match on Sunday against Everton. And although victorious on the scoreboard they are a weakened team heading in to Saturday’s final. Two of the back three were hobbled on Sunday (Mustafi with an illness and Gibbs with a knee knock) but its hopeful that both will be ready on Saturday. If not it may force Arsenal to give Mertesacker his first start of the season. Typically not something you like to face in a FA Cup final. Chelsea on the other hand enter the match fairly well rested and manager, Antonio Conte, should have a full roster to pick from.
On the plus side for Arsenal, Wellbeck could be a key player. Having missed the last FA Cup final two years ago due to injury he is looking to make his mark. And in the back they have one of the games all time great keepers in Cech. Attacking midfielder and German National Team player, Ozil will also be critical as they try and maintain high pressure and control the attacking third of the field. Then there is Chelsea. Ever steady throughout the season. Every time they looked to have a slight misstep they righted the ship and went on another run. They also have one of the top keepers in the world in Courtois and a group up the middle comprised of Luis, Alonzo, Hazard, and Costa. It should be a very entertaining match. Look for Arsenal to go forward immediately and Chelsea to play a bit of a waiting game to settle into the match. In the end I think the Blues just have too much firepower for a three man back line to handle and the Blues win the Cup 2-1. Now that said, in any one match in soccer a keeper with a hot hand can make a huge difference. If either Cech or Courtois have one of those days, it will be awfully tough for the other side to win.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.