Arsenal v Aston Villa
Saturday, 17:30, BBC One and Sky Sports 1
Match Odds: Arsenal [1.57], Aston Villa [7.0], The Draw [4.5].
Arsenal have absolutely demolished Aston Villa twice already this season, winning 3-0 at Villa Park and 5-0 at the Emirates – but those matches were when Paul Lambert was in charge of Villa, and Tim Sherwood is unlikely to make the same mistakes.
Arsenal prospered at Villa Park by counter-attacking quickly through Danny Welbeck and Mesut Ozil, while in the return game were afforded an astonishing amount of space both in front of, and behind, the Villa defence. Sherwood might not be celebrated for his tactical acumen, but he won’t play into Arsenal’s hands in this manner.
Arsene Wenger has named an unchanged side recently, but rotated for the final day of the campaign and now has three clear selection decisions.
The first, and most important, is upfront. Olivier Giroud was in excellent form heading into the spring, but his season has stalled and he’s now gone eight games without a goal. Theo Walcott, meanwhile, hit a hat-trick in last weekend’s 4-1 victory over West Brom and is now pushing for a start in his favoured centre-forward role. Wenger hasn’t started Giroud in the past two FA Cup games, playing Welbeck instead – but with Welbeck out injured, Walcott might get the nod. Clearly, Giroud and Walcott are chalk and cheese, and Walcott’s sheer pace would cause Villa’s defence huge problems.
The other dilemma is at the opposite end, where Wenger has stuck to a policy of playing his reserve goalkeeper in the cup. Last year Lukasz Fabianski was the beneficiary, starting ahead of his compatriot Wojceich Szczesny. Now, however, Szczesny seems set to start – he’s fallen behind David Ospina in the pecking order, but has therefore started cup games. He commands his box better than Ospina, and Wenger has admitted he’s wary of Villa’s crossing towards Christian Benteke, so expect the Pole to start.
Jack Wilshere’s fine performance last weekend also puts him in contention, but it’s more likely Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla will get the nod in midfield.
Tim Sherwood also has a few selection dilemmas, particularly whether to use Charles N’Zogbia or Gabriel Agbonlahor in a forward trio with Benteke and Jack Grealish. N’Zogbia will find space between the lines, whereas Agbonlahor will race in behind – again, the contrast is important.
Villa’s main area of strength is in the inside-left channel, where Benteke, Grealish and Fabian Delph combined so effectively against Liverpool in the semi-final. Arsenal might be a little vulnerable in this position – Per Mertesacker won’t fancy coping with Benteke’s pace, Hector Bellerin has enjoyed a superb campaign but can still be targeted as a youngster, while Aaron Ramsey, last year’s FA Cup final match-winner, dislikes playing on the right flank. Could Villa prosper down this side?
Also look out for Tom Cleverley‘s storming midfield runs – Benteke is good at dragging defenders out of position, and Sherwood has clearly told Cleverley to race into goalscoring positions regularly. He might be a decent outside First Goalscorer bet at around [30.0] having found the net three times in his last five games.
Villa will also look to set-pieces for chances. Benteke and Ron Vlaar are obvious targets, and it’s worth remembering how Arsenal struggled in the final against Hull last year in this respect – they were 2-0 down within 10 minutes because of two set-plays, then nearly went 3-0 down from a similar route.
But Arsenal remain favourites. The key area for them is Alexis Sanchez‘s battle against Leandro Bacuna – the Chilean has scored lots of important goals this season, including two in the semi-final win over Reading. His dribbling might be too much for Bacuna, especially as Mesut Ozil has recently played some excellent through-balls into his path.
Arsenal’s three FA Cup games at Wembley over the past year or so have had a similar pattern – they’ve triumphed, but not over 90 minutes. They needed penalties to scrape past Wigan in last season’s semi-final, then extra-time to beat Hull in the final last year (3-2) and Reading in the semi this year (2-1). All these games have been against inferior opposition, too.
Villa offer a similar challenge, and I feel Sherwood might be able to blunt Arsenal initially – before the quality of Wenger’s almost-fully-fit squad shines through. Introductions of Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky proved crucial midway through extra-time last season, and I fancy something similar here – Arsenal to win in extra-time at [10.0].
Back Tom Cleverley as First Goalscorer at [30.0]Back Arsenal to win in extra-time at [10.0] or better
The Betfair Trader’s View: Alan Thompson
After nine barren years at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is now looking to retain the FA Cup that they eventually won last year. Two goals behind inside ten minutes, in 2014’s final they eventually rallied to beat Hull City 3-2 after extra time. As against Hull, the Gunners are strong favourites to win on Saturday as they take on an Aston Villa side who only narrowly survived in the Premier League with 38 points.
Neither side have required a replay on their way to Wembley and while Villa have enjoyed home advantage in the competition all the way to the semi final when they beat Liverpool 2-1, they did have to get past three Premier League sides en-route. Arsenal had a couple of tricky away ties to navigate, especially in the quarter-final where they had to travel to Old Trafford, emerging as they did with a 2-1 victory before eventually beating Reading 2-1 after extra time in their semi-final.
Villa lost their way in the league after they were mathematically safe, losing against Southampton away (6-1) and then against an already relegated Burnley (1-0) at Villa Park on the final day. While Arsenal smashed West Brom at the Emirates last week 4-1 as players made their bid for a place this week, but that was their only win in their last four starts, losing at home to Swansea (1-0), drawing at Old Trafford (1-1) and with Sunderland (0-0) at the Emirates. The Villans were also comprehensively beaten in their two Premier League games this season against the Gunners, conceding eight times in the process (0-3 Villa Park & 5-0 Emirates) – so I am struggling to see how they can turn that around.
I will be backing Arsenal -1 & -1.5 in the Asian Handicap @ 2.2