This Saturday marks the heralded FA Cup final. The traditional final fixture of the season, a last chance for silverware, precursor of summer, and a day etched in childhood memories of sunny days spent half indoors watching the game, then half in the park re-enacting Wimbledon's win etc.
And on the face of it, Arsenal will be predicted and expected to draw blood cleanly from their rivals Aston Villa this weekend. It is a story as straightforward as their league positions state - Arsenal finished 3rd from top, and Villa fourth from bottom.
However, FA Cup games are not always that straightforward...
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Before the FA Cup Semi Finals in April, the bookies were offering 8/11 on an Arsenal v Liverpool final, and although that would have been a clearly expected outcome, Aston Villa went on to prove that anything's possible.
After that loss, Liverpool slumped out of the rest of the season, losing points left right and centre, including a 6-1 loss to Stoke, as well as a 3-1 loss to Crystal Palace, and eventually a final league position of 6th. It was worse than the Liverpool white suits incident.
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So, can truly anything happen in the FA Cup? Well, even excluding the Gunners' own unlikely victory over Man U at Old Trafford in the sixth round, there have been several cupsets so far, which suggest it can.
While Bradford knocked out Sunderland by a convincing 2-0 in the fifth round, they only got there by beating Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge in January. That same month, Man City were rolled over by Middlesborough 2-0, while Blackburn Rovers also took out Swansea.
THE BOOKIES' TAKE
So what will the Bookies' take be? As always, probably a decent slice of capital. And unsurprisingly they are backing Arsenal in their odds calculations - the Gunners are 8/15 to win in 90 minutes, 3/10 to win outright.
Villa are a tantalising 11/2 for a win in 90 minutes, with a draw roughly 3/1 across the board.
However, bookies hate favourites winning, and their only way of mitigating for it in instances like this is to reduce the odds to a point below the relative likelihood of them happening. Considering we are talking about two Premier League teams here, and an FA Cup that has a history of underdog winners and Extra Time and Penalties, those odds are short.
Not just including that famous Crazy Gang win over Liverpool in 1988, other lesser clubs to have overturned a favourite include Wigan beating Manchester City (at the height of their powers) in 2013, and West Ham just losing to Liverpool on penalties, after a 3-3 cracker, in 2006. And last year seemed to be playing out that way too.
ARSENAL V HULL
Last year Arsenal found themselves believing the pre-match hype, that this was Wenger's chance to add to his trophy cabinet for the first time since 2005, it was a solid done deal. However eight minutes after the ref blew his whistle at the start of the game they were already two goals down, heads down, and metaphorical pants down.
For a team who had at times found it impossible to score that season, there then came a sort of gladiatorial struggle from the London giants, while many people suddenly found themselves pitying Goliath.
Arsenal were caught napping, and as often has been the case for the North Londoners, after one ignominious concession, they could not find motivation and resilience immediately to fill its wake.
This season has played out very differently for Arsenal. And perhaps their revival stems from that cup final, when they dug deep and, lead by example including Cazorla and Ramsey, they fought back to a 3-2 win after Extra Time.
Last year's Man of the Match was Aaron Ramsey, but I remember thinking at the time it should have been Super Santi Cazorla. Both are 10/1 to gain that title in this match with William Hill, and I would fancy Santi to make all. Though both will be involved in plenty of play, Santi could benefit from the ability to score from free kicks and penalties, as well as open play, to make his face more prominent in people's minds.
EUROPA LEAGUE SPOT
For Wenger, this is a crucial point at which to solidify feeling at the Emirates, and his reputation in the industry, by following up last year's trophy which came after a sizeable drought of silverware (during which his side even failed to win the Emirates Cup four times out of seven).
There is also inevitably a lot riding on this game for the other clubs involved. If Villa win, they get an automatic group berth in the Europa League next season. This also means, in turn, that Liverpool will get the third round qualifying spot - an embuggerance which will see their season starting, without a completed stadium extension, as early as July.
If Arsenal win, which is likely, Tottenham and Liverpool will get automatic group stage entry, and suddenly Southampton will be drafted into the Europa Qualifiers after finishing 7th in the league. So there could be quite a few people in all corners of the country following the action and fancying a punt.
Looking at the last 20 years of finals, 1-0 and 2-0 in ordinary time is clearly the most prominent result, accounting for a staggering 13 of the 20 games. And when a Premier League big boy has come across a minnow, we have seen more - for example Man U 3-0 Milwall in 2004. This would suggest we might see a repeat of the Chelsea-Villa 1-0 from 2000. Bookies are offering 6/1 for the Gunners to win by that margin, or 13/2 for 2-0 in normal time.
When it has been two teams from the Prem playing in this fixture, one larger than the other, the scoreline has often been high, with goals at either end. Obviously last year went 2-2 in 90 minutes and 3-2 to the good after Extra Time, but also one recalls a 2-1 Chelsea win over Everton in 2009, and the whopping 3-3 game from 2006 when Liverpool eventually beat West Ham only on penalties.
In the past ten years though, games have been a lot closer in general, with four being settled outside of 90 mins (2 in Extra Time, 2 on penalties). And William Hill are offering 12/1 for Arsenal to win on penalties.
Looking at the two teams' league performance, it has almost been a mirror image. Not only have their finishing positions been completely contrasting, Villa's Win Draw Loss (WDL) of 10-8-20 almost perfectly reflects Arsenal's WDL opposite of 22-9-7. Furthermore Arsenal scored 71 goals to 36 against, while Villa only managed 31 to 57 against. This would certainly lead me to believe Arsenal will pinch it by one or two goals (see odds previously quoted).
But a bigger issue is whether Szczesny plays or Ospina. The latter has clearly been the more consistent this term, but Wenger does have a history of keeping his Cup string goalie in throughout the competition. The Polish international has been left waiting for a decision with regards to this year's plan, and he has clearly fallen out of favour with the manager since being caught smoking in the showers after a terrible 2-0 loss to Southampton.
If Szczesny is selected, it increases the chance of Villa making a goal. Having said that, he is still better than Fabianski, and William Hill's 8/1 for Arsenal to win in Extra Time, suggest an Arsenal 3-1 in 90 minutes may be interesting at 11/1 with Paddy Power.
However, just as Arsenal have grown this year into a much more clinical killing machine, they will also have more maturity and more belief gained from the last twelve months. Given this, the strength of their squad, and the poise of their key players, the Gunners should be firing on all cylinders from the first whistle (this time round).
Although a repeat of one of this fixture's league results is unlikely - both won by Arsenal 3-0 at the Emirates and 5-0 at Villa Park, there will be opportunities for goals. Villa are likely to be set up to hold the line, but will also know that last year only almost went to Hull because of their attacking demeanour in the first 8 minutes. There is a chance then that Villa may try to use the element of surprise in the same way, they are good going forward after all.
If they do that, and fail to score, they could be exposed to a technically superior and fast moving Arsenal team, with goalscorers in every position on the pitch, and exceptional passing and movement going forward. Added to this, 14 of the last 20 finals have been won to nil in 90 minutes, and for this reason I would feel inclined to predict a 3-0 win to the Gunners, available generally at 10/1.
I hate First Goalscorer bets, and a Wincast of Sanchez to score anytime and Arsenal to win is listed at a pathetically meagre 6/4 with Paddy Power, and for those odds it represents absolutely terrible value. Arsenal to win, Koscielny to score anytime is more interesting at 16/1, and will guarantee you watch each set piece carefully. Depending on the selection at the back, 3-1 at 11/1 could be good cover.
Although this fixture could go either way, a tight fight or a convincing win, you can't escape the evidence that Arsenal are likely to take it, and in 90 minutes. Can anything really happen in the FA Cup? If it can, then we will see some real trouble for Arsenal, much like last year against Hull. But the stats, and the odds, suggest otherwise.
So I will be avoiding that Villa to win and Senderos to score Wincast at 70/1...
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