Saturday's FA Cup final showdown at Wembley -- 12.30 p.m. ET, ESPN+ (U.S. only) -- is the third installment of a recent trilogy pitting Arsenal against Chelsea, with the score locked at one win apiece.
The two previous finals did not follow their prevailing prematch narrative. In 2017, Chelsea headed into the FA Cup showpiece having won the Premier League under Antonio Conte, amassing 18 points more than Arsenal, who finished outside the top four for the first time since taking charge in 1996. They faced a crisis at centre-back, too, with Shkodran Mustafi, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny, meaning Per Mertesacker was drafted in to anchor a back three despite playing just 37 minutes all season. Yet Mertesacker was man of the match and Arsenal won 2-1 in extra-time.
Similarly, last year's Europa League final appeared to be an even contest, perhaps edged by Arsenal given the disarray at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard was leaving for Real Madrid, Maurizio Sarri was about to depart as head coach and N'Golo Kante limped out of the final training session in Baku through injury. Yet Kante started, Hazard starred and Sarri marked his final game in charge with a comfortable 4-1 victory on a night. Arsenal needed to win that night to secure Champions League qualification after missing out in the league, with Chelsea already satisfied in that regard.
This weekend, the Gunners must triumph to secure Europa League football next term. It is a sign of the magnitude of the task Mikel Arteta has at Arsenal that they have fallen so far, now charged with defeating a team who look resurgent under Frank Lampard.
These two clubs have a recent history so intertwined that Saturday's match is packed with intriguing subplots, any or all of which could prove decisive.
Arteta vs. Lampard
This is the meeting of two head coaches credited with instigating improvement, seeking validation at the start of their managerial careers by winning their first piece of silverware. Both have a strong affiliation with the competition having won it as players (Lampard four times, Arteta twice) and they're aiming to put themselves at the vanguard of the next generation of managers aiming to rival the dominance of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp.
Chelsea can focus purely on the football, while Arsenal are acutely aware of the financial implications at Wembley. With Champions League football secured on the final day of the Premier League season, the Blues are pressing ahead with a rebuild that has already seen Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner arrive, with Bayer Leverkusen's Kai Havertz and Leicester's Ben Chilwell next on the hit list. Yet Arsenal's summer plans hinge on qualifying for Europe to help mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19. Several agents have told ESPN that the Gunners have been in contact to discuss players, with their interest contingent upon reaching the Europa League.
The Gunners earned around £34 million for their run to the final last year, and the chance to earn a similar amount will strengthen their resolve to compete in the transfer market. It would also help them find the funds to retain striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who ESPN revealed earlier this month is requesting a three-year contract worth up to £250,000 a week.
The mere fact a trophy is at stake should be sufficient motivation, but the stakes are higher for Arsenal just as they were in Baku.
Arsenal are not in the same tumultuous state as Chelsea were in Azerbaijan, but the cold facts are their star striker's future is uncertain and they're missing goalkeeper Bernd Leno and Mustafi through injury, while the Blues are already planning for next term and finished the campaign on a high.
Arteta dismissed the 2019 version as irrelevant. "A year in football is a different life, really," he said. "Even two weeks or three days later, you can see a team performing one way then they can be a different team, so I think there is not many things to get from that [final]."
He will certainly hope that proves to be the case this weekend.
Olivier Giroud swapped red for blue
Giroud came back to haunt Arsenal in Baku, 18 months after swapping red for blue in an £18m deal. He scored 105 goals in 253 games for the Gunners, and while his commitment was never questioned, Giroud's quality regularly was.
The principal argument was that while the Frenchman was a sufficiently consistent goal scorer to keep a team in the top four, he did not possess the match-winning talent to make the difference in a title race. Arsenal saw Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as possessing the latter quality, but it is an indication of the wider decline Wenger and Unai Emery presided over that the Gunners have not played Champions League football since Giroud left and registered their worst top-flight league finish (eighth) for 25 years.
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- Arsenal, Spurs, Leicester: Can they contend?
Ironically, Giroud is now simultaneously lauded in west London for scoring the goals that sealed Chelsea's top four spot. The 33-year-old scored seven goals in 10 games since the restart, picking up where a faltering Tammy Abraham left off. The Frenchman faces renewed competition this summer following Werner's arrival from RB Leipzig, while Havertz can also play through the middle if he joins from Bayer Leverkusen.
High-profile forwards are arriving to put Giroud in the shade once again, but it would be no surprise if he delivered against the team he was no longer considered good enough for.
David Luiz swapped blue for red
Sources have told ESPN that David Luiz's sudden move to Arsenal last summer followed a conversation in which Frank Lampard told the Brazilian he would not be first-choice, highlighting a series of errors he made in preseason. Lampard's withering condemnation prompted Luiz to instigate a move across London to Arsenal, where he has continued to prove the divisive figure he has been for much of his career.
Two matches against Manchester City this season sum up the Luiz conundrum: The 26-minute cameo in which he made a mistake for one goal, conceded a penalty for another and got sent off was the epitome of the chaos he can bring. Yet in the FA Cup semifinal against the same opponents, Luiz was imperious, evoking memories of Mertesacker from the 2017 final. He's clearly suited better to playing in a back three, and Arsenal do not possess another centre-back of his calibre when he's at his best.
It is for that reason, in addition to his leadership qualities, that Arteta pushed for Arsenal to trigger an option extending his contract by another year. Chelsea have struggled defensively in Luiz's absence, but they made the top four regardless. Luiz will no doubt revel in the chance to prove Lampard's judgement was wrong.
Then-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger took a significant risk by playing his backup goalkeeper in the 2017 final. David Ospina was palpably inferior to Petr Cech, but Wenger stuck by the Colombian and was vindicated.
By 2019, Cech's involvement in the Europa League final was highly questionable. Bernd Leno had enjoyed an impressive first season and was clearly the future. Nobody could ever doubt Cech's professionalism, but was it more sentiment than pragmatism that led him to start the final match of his career against the club he had won everything with?
In the end, it didn't matter as Chelsea ran out easy winners regardless, but once again the goalkeeping position for both sides has been a central part of the build-up.
Emiliano Martinez has deputized for the injured Leno with surprising consistency, but this is by far the biggest game of his career. The Argentine spoke movingly this week about his journey, stating with conviction that his time had come, so much so that his approach to contract talks over his future will involve a reticence to return to being a backup for Leno next season.
Meanwhile, Kepa Arrizabalaga's future is increasingly uncertain after he was dropped for Chelsea's final day Premier League victory over Wolves, with Lampard unconvinced the 25-year-old is capable of being the club's long-term No. 1. Willy Caballero is expected to start at Wembley having played at every stage bar the fifth-round win over Liverpool. Therefore, it's possible Kepa may have played his last game for the club, a statement that also applies to Willian, who has been linked with a move to Arsenal.
Whatever happens this weekend, these two London rivals continue to prove the adage that you keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Prediction: Chelsea 2, Arsenal 1. Though Arsenal have an extra layer of motivation, the Blues have too much quality if the game ends up being an open affair.
From SIG: Stats of note heading into FA Cup final
- Saturday marks the 21st FA Cup meeting and third FA Cup final meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea. Arsenal leads the head-to-head series 9-5-6 (W-L-D) including both previous final meetings in 2016-17 (2-1) and 2001-02 (2-0). In 200 all-time meetings between both sides in all comps, Arsenal leads the series with 76 wins (65 for Chelsea) and 59 draws.
- This will be Arsenal's 21st appearance in the FA Cup final, the most in tournament history. Their 13 FA Cup titles are also the most in tournament history. The Gunners have won eight of their past nine final appearances, including each of the past six; only their north London rivals Tottenham, with seven straight final wins between 1901-82, have a longer streak. For Chelsea, this is their 14th trip to the FA Cup final and their third in the past four seasons, including their win in 2018. Their eight FA Cup wins are third-most behind Arsenal and Man United (12).
- Will Christian Pulisic be able to make an impact? He has 10 goals this season in all competitions for Chelsea (nine in Premier League, one in Champions League), his most ever in a single season. The U.S. attacker has 17 goal contributions in total (10 goals, seven assists) in all competitions for the Blues, too -- only Tammy Abraham (21) and Willian (20) have more for Frank Lampard's side this season. Pulisic can also become the third American player, all-time, to win the FA Cup if Chelsea win this weekend: the second player was longtime U.S. and Everton goalkeeper, Tim Howard, who won with Manchester United in 2003-04. As for the first? Julian Sturgis, a poet and novelist who claimed the trophy in 1873 when amateur side Wanderers FC defeated Oxford University 2-0.
- If not Pulisic, how about Giroud? He's prolific in the FA Cup, with 16 career goals in the tournament, the second-most since 2013 behind Sergio Aguero (19). Given his past career at Arsenal, he's also uniquely positioned to become just the second player, all-time, to score for and against a club in separate FA Cup finals. The first to do it? Frank Stapleton, for/against Manchester United.
- On the Arsenal side of things, look for Aubameyang to make an impact. He's got a team-high 27 goals in all competitions for the Gunners, 15 more than the second-best Alexandre Lacazette. With 68 goals in all competitions for Arsenal since his club debut in Feb. 2018, he's tied with Liverpool's Mohamed Salah for most goals in that span.
- SPI chances to win FA Cup final, according to FiveThirtyEight: Arsenal: 34%, Chelsea 66% -- Alberto Rusinol, SIG