This weekend sees the attention of the nation swivel to Wembley to witness the two FA Cup Semi-Finals of 2009. Last season’s FA Cup fixtures seemed to epitomise the phrase ‘the magic of the Cup’ and eventually Portesmouth emerged the victors in the first final I can remember that didn’t feature one of the so called ‘big four’.
This year though has seen a return to the typical dominance of the bigger clubs and the semi-finals see Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal joined by Everton, who eliminated both Liverpool and Aston Villa en route to the final and are steadily closing the gap between themselves and the ‘big four’. So we should have some really cracking semi-finals to watch this weekend, but which two sides will earn the right to return to Wembley and contest the oldest Cup final in football?
Chelsea vs. Arsenal (Saturday 16.15 GMT)
This looks set to be one of the biggest and best London derbies in many years. Both of these sides come into this match hot off the heels of a great result in the Champions League, although Aresnal’s match was a little less exerting than Chelsea’s.
If anything, Arsenal are probably the form team, because although Chelsea have only lost once in their last seven league games (the defeat a slip up against Spurs) they have conceded seven goals in their last two matches, slipping three late on against Bolton and of course four against Liverpool in midweek. Arsenal haven’t lost in the league since November but were drawing too many until recently when they have won five succesive matches, scoring 16 goals and conceding just 3, and with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Villareal in midweek, they’re certainly scoring goals.
However, with Chelsea also in goalscoring form Arsenal must be worried their injury problems in defence, with Kieran Gibbs picking up a slight strain in midweek and Sagna still a doubt for the match. Considering they are already without Gallas and Djorou, Wenger will really be pushed for defensive options. Chelsea, in contrast, are relatively untroubled and will welcome back John Terry who missed the Champions League thriller through suspension, and Boswinga has resumed training this week so may be available.
To the prediction then, and I’m hoping that this match will fulfill its obvious promise. These sides have both been scoring goals and with Chelsea shipping them and Arsenal minus a defence we could see a goal fest, with both teams in a way trying to outscore each other. I have to say I’ve been really impressed with Arsenal’s recent form, with Fabregas and Adebayor particularly inspired since returning from injury, and Walcott, Van Persie and Arshavin also pulling strings.
Chelsea remain quite reliant on the effervescent Frank Lampard but with Drogba back firing they will always pose a threat up front, and though Anelka has somewhat lost his scoring boots in recent times, he often enjoys playing against former clubs. Essien will be a power house in midfield and I would expect Hiddink to ask him to take Fabregas out of the game in the same manner in which he dogged Steven Gerrard in the first leg of the Champions League quarter final.
I’m finding this one really hard to call, but my gut feeling is telling me to go with Arsenal. I just feel their confidence is high and when they’re on song they can be unstoppable, and Chelsea’s defence (and goalkeeper) were very shaky in midweek. Whatever happens, this should be a match well worth watching.
Prediction: Chelsea 1-2 Arsenal.
Everton vs. Manchester United (Sunday 15.00 GMT)
Manchester United are of course in pursuit of an unprecedented quintuple, but with their form having dipped in recent weeks, the pressure is beginning to show on Sir Alex’s men. Everton are in good form though, unlucky to draw with Villa at the weekend, Moyes’ boys have continually defied a long injury list to have another strong season which could yet be capped with some silverware.
United have recovered from successive defeats against Liverpool and Fulham in the league to beat Villa and Sunderland but each time only by a narrow margin at the death and were nearly rumbled in the Champions League when Porto earned a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford and were only saved by a Cristiano Ronaldo strike in the second leg. Everton suffered a disappointing defeat to Portsmouth at the end of March but with players returning from injury went on to hammer four past Wigan and draw 3-3 with Villa, denied mainly by some catastrophic refereeing, but glad to see the likes of Fellaini and Osman hitting top form.
Injury wise, Everton have suffered an incredible amount this season and will certainly be without stars Mikel Arteta and Yakubu who are out for the season with serious injuries, as is Victor Anichebe. However, both Joseph Yobo and James Vaughan look to be available to boost Moyes’ squad but with little match experience will likely not start. Everton will be without loan man Jo who is cuptied and with Saha suffering from a virus, Moyes may once again have to ask Tim Cahill to play up front with Fellaini linking midifield and attack.
United are somewhat luckier, and their larger squad is looking mostly fit, with the likes of Rooney, Neville and Carrick looking likely to shake off slight knocks. In many ways the dilemma for Ferguson is which way to shuffle his deck, with so many options available but a very busy finale to the season ahead he may be tempted to rest some key players after the Champions League exertions in midweek – it depends how much he wants the FA Cup.
I see this match as being a bit tighter than the first semi, with both sides having traditionally very tight defences. Everton’s all English back four has really gelled this season and are looking very solid and while Manchester United’s impenetrable streak has been ended, Vidic and Ferdinand are still a formidabble task, especially for a team without a fully fit striker.
These two sides have met twice in the league already this season though, and both times were close matches. The first was a 1-1 draw that really sparked life into Everton’s campaign, the second edged in United’s favour with only a penalty splitting the sides, but with Riley in charge of this semi, lookout for some dodgy refereeing decisions.
I feel that Everton will benefit from having an in-form Fellaini in their side this weekend though, as it was he who scored Everton’s equaliser in the first meeting this season, and he gave Man Utd’s much celebrated defencive pair a torrid time all game and tellingly, was missing from the return match which the Toffees narrowly lost.
There is one thing for sure, and that is that Everton will be up for this match. They’re a really close knit bunch of players and will know that they have a really great chance of progressing through to a memorable final. On the other hand, United’s squad are still fighting on two other fronts and their focus will not be so single-mindedly on the Wembley pitch and I think that might give the underdogs an edge.
No doubt about it, the favourites going into this match are Manchester United, but personally i don’t think they will win five trophies, and out of the five, this will be the one they want least. I said ages ago when Everton or Liverpool were due to meet Villa in the next round that I fancied the winner of those ties to go all the way and I stand by that. COYB.
Prediction: Everton 1-0 Manchester United.