Friday, May 16, 2014

FA Cup Final preview

The English FA Cup has long been thought of as the crowning jewel of that nation’s football season. For a country in which the term “second season” usually has a very different meaning, a cup competition interspersed amongst the sweaty buildup to the season’s final days is meant to provide the most tangible drama available before everyone takes a nice Bex and retires for a three-month long siesta.

This year’s Cup Final will be played today at Wembley, and features an Arsenal team that hopes to break a nine-year title drought and Hull City, whose trophyless dates back to 1965-66 when they triumphed in England’s third tier.

Hull City come into the games as palpable underdogs and haven’t won since the 5th of April. That victory took them to twelfth in the Premiership before more recent results have slipped the club to sixteenth and within sight of relegation. The club’s two most potent attackers, strikers Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long, are both ineligible for the matchup after having already played FA Cup matches this season for Everton and West Bromwich Albion.

I'm a Tiger!  Raawr!
Their replacements will likely be Yannick Sagbo and Matty Fryatt, journeymen players whose best hope will be to capitalize on any potential poacher’s chances that come their way. This is football writer’s code for “not as good as the other guys”.

Manager Steve Bruce is likely to field a team that revolves around a midfield more balanced than most in the Premier League; the club’s midfield trio include Tottenham expats Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore with Slovenian mainstay Robert Koren. The crown jewel undoubtedly Huddlestone (no, not Loki), whose ability to spray accurate, lengthy through balls betwixt defences remains somehow unmissed by England bos Roy Hodgson.

The Tigers have more than a modicum of hope, however. Few teams have been as capable of mental disintegration over the past decade as their opponents, The Arsenal. This iteration of the Gunners however has a few pieces that were missing in former years, namely central midfielder Aaron Ramsey’s A-game and the second-striking wizardry of Mesut Ozil.-

After all the hype that (probably fairly) accompanied his arrival at the Emirates stadium, Ozil has been a disappointment in 2013-14. It says much of the fabled German that most of his influence has come about as a result of his presence rather than as a result of appreciable moments of pure skill; manager Arsene Wenger should certainly hope that all his featured player requires is a stage with sufficient exposure.

Ozil’s relative absence has been made up for in part by the barnstorming season experienced by Aaron Ramsey. He last played in an FA Cup final with Cardiff City in 2008 only weeks before his transfer to North London and has waited several years for his health to catch up to his talent. With a defence led by Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny far improved from seasons previous, elimination games tend to highlight Arsenal’s real point of weakness – their aforementioned tendency to freeze.

While theories abound, no-one can quite explain why a team with as much footballing nous as the Gunners tend to freak out when finding themselves in positions of power. Popular hypotheses include them buying too far into Wenger’s we-are-a-young-team Kool-Aid, that the men in red “sense the occasion” (in the bad way), or that they just don’t know how to win. The distinctive proof of the club’s poor record in big matches than the 2009 League Cup Final, where they lost to Birmingham City – a team who would then be relegated.
The similarities between the two situations are all too obvious for Gooner fans.

The match will likely be a close one – not since 2003-04, where Manchester United spiflicated low-riders Millwall, has the FA Cup Final produced a margin of over a goal. This, and the presence of difference-makers like Ozil, Ramsey and Huddlestone, adds to the promise of a great match.

Prediction: Hull City 1-1 victors on penalties, with Tom Huddlestone Man of the Match.

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