It is not without reason that English soccer, Premier League or F.A. Cup competition, is generally regarded as the toughest in the world. Accordingly, to be sure of yourself is to aim high at a career in the Queen’s own country or, if in doubt, better retreat to Europe. The damage done to humanity by coronavirus also affected the sporting world, not the least English soccer in which all competitions had to be completely suspended for some four months, at the end of which it was desperately decided to resume the game even without spectators in stadia, something unprecedented. The anticipated loss of fun turned out to have been miscalculated or at least, exaggerated, considering the renewed interest worldwide generated in the English soccer season, which officially ends tomorrow.
Any match between the two leading London clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal, always creates fever-pitch tension among their respective supporters throughout the world but Nigeria in particular. And tomorrow’s match as the final of the English F.A. Cup competition fits that bill. Adding pep to the showdown is the fact that the match is taking place at a neutral ground, Wembley Stadium. Traditionally great rivals, the two teams are in particular under great pressure, a pressure dictated by different strokes in English soccer, in which a team is expected to win the Premier League championship or, at the worst, qualify for the European club championship competition by emerging among the first four teams in the Premier League.
On the surface, Chelsea appears better placed but also under pressure like Arsenal. Better placed and yet under pressure? Chelsea is completing the first season under the managership of one of its greatest heroes, Frank Lampard, who, as a veteran, was a member of the team’s glorious days as winners of various trophies, indeed, all available trophies except one, World Club trophy. Otherwise, the club’s record comprises Premier League cup seven times, F.A. Cup six times, Club Winners’ Cup, Europa Cup and, of course, the European Champion Clubs Cup won in 2012. That was Chelsea’s distinction, which, till today, gives the club the edge as the first and only London club to win the trophy.
Yet, that distinction does not in any way diminish Arsenal’s status in the soccer world with millions of supporters all over the place, including Nigeria. Indeed, on record, both Arsenal and Chelsea had been helped to glory by two Nigerian internationals, Papilo Nwankwo Kanu and Celestine Babayaro, respectively. Arsenal has won the F.A. Cup (tomorrow’s) richest prize 13 times, while Chelsea’s record for the same trophy is only eight times. Chelsea, under Frank Lampard’s managership, barely qualified last Sunday among top four English teams for the European club championship next season. Also, Chelsea is still in the current season’s European clubs championship with a quarter-final second-leg match against Bayern Munich next week, surely incapable of off-setting a deficit of three goals the Germans inflicted (on Chelsea) in London early this year.
To worsen matters, Chelsea’s only (remaining) hope for a trophy under Frank Lampard’s first year as manager is the F.A. Cup. If that is any inducement to hunger for victory tomorrow, Arsenal seems better placed. Since the last five years of the tenure of the otherwise outstanding former manager Arsen Wenger and the past three years after his exit, Arsenal has been exhibiting irritating lacklustre performance, to the disappointment of the club’s millions of supporters throughout the world. Worse still, F.A. Cup finalists Arsenal did not qualify for European champions clubs competition next season. Tomorrow’s F.A. Cup final is, therefore, an opportunity the club is taking seriously to burnish its image of the recent past. And any sceptic will be taking a risk to underrate the Gunners. Despite Liverpool’s current English premiership performance, the real recognised conquerors in English soccer for the past three years have been Manchester City, the very team sensationally knocked by Arsenal in the semi-final of the F.A. Cup. That feat over Manchester City should give Arsenal tremendous confidence against Chelsea.
Will Chelsea end the season without a single trophy? The club’s disturbingly inconsistent performance throughout the season makes it seem so, except the equally sensational dismissal of Manchester United in the second semi-final of the F.A. Cup competition. Rather unfairly, much was being made of the poor performance of Manchester United’s goalkeeper David De Gea as the cause of the team’s loss. Must that becloud Chelsea’s defeat of Manchester United as if it was a fluke? The match was fiercely contested and the better side won. Only last month, Chelsea, with a 2-0 score, emerged one of the few teams to defeat Manchester City in the just-ended English Premier League season, during which Manchester United lost home and away matches to Manchester City. The second semi-final of the F.A. Cup duel was Chelsea’s second defeat of Manchester United this season, having earlier defeated the same team in the league. Also, Chelsea’s goalkeeper Keppa Arrizabalaga was not better that day, such that Chelsea has since put him up for sale and he is unlikely to keep for the team tomorrow.
For tomorrow’s match, there is an old score to settle. The battle for supremacy between the two London clubs enters another round, an encounter which will be tense. Chelsea’s main marksman is Arsenal’s former centre forward, Olivier Giroud, who, after a long goal drought, has lately come to life. But can he threaten his past colleagues? On the other hand, Arsenal’s defence mainstay David Luiz, was a teammate of (today’s Chelsea’s manager) Frank Lampard. In fact, they were both winners of the Champions Clubs trophy for Chelsea in 2012.
Unfortunately, Frank Lampard’s return to Chelsea as manager a year ago created a prospective incompatible working relationship for both men and Lampard had to unceremoniously sell David Luiz to Arsenal only hours before the season kicked off. On his day, David Luiz is the best centre half in the world. Equally, on his day off (both at Chelsea and Arsenal), David Luiz could be a calamity conceding painful goals or be sent off by the referee. That is the picture for tomorrow’s match. Depending on your side of support, it is excitement or disappointment galore, David Luiz permitting.
By the way, two of my sons and three grandsons are supporters of Arsenal while my fourth son and I are fervent backers of Chelsea. That exactly is how the two teams have shaped worldwide enthusiasm among fans for the F.A. Cup final.