IF you’re a club in the top four of the Premier League, used to competing in the Champions League and challenging for the title, the FA Cup is supposed to be an anachronism.
Cup final day is a throwback to a bygone age when silverware was the measure of a club’s value rather than figures on a balance sheet, and the final game of the season was the one that mattered more than any other.
Today, for the biggest clubs, things are different. The FA Cup final is increasingly seen as little more than an end-of-season irrelevance, with a Wembley victory meaning little in the grand scheme of things. Unless, of course, you’re Arsenal.
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Arsene Wenger has been involved in some hugely important games during his 18-year stay in North London, but when it comes to determining his future position and safeguarding his status in the eyes of Arsenal’s supporters, today’s game with Hull City is as big as anything he has overseen. The ‘specialist in failure’, to borrow a cutting phrase from Jose Mourinho, desperately needs to engineer some success.
It is now nine years since Arsenal won a major trophy, and in that time, Portsmouth, Birmingham City, Swansea City and Wigan Athletic have all triumphed in either the FA Cup or League Cup final.
The Arsenal fans, who continue to pay the highest average season-ticket prices in the country, are growing increasingly restless, and yet another title challenge that began extremely brightly before fizzling out to nothing in the spring failed to assuage their displeasure.
An FA Cup final victory would at least ensure a joyous day out in the Wembley sunshine, and for all that the Arsenal squad continues to lack depth and quality in key areas, Wenger’s side will start as firm favourites this afternoon.
Aaron Ramsey and Mezut Ozil have rediscovered their fitness and form at the ideal moment, Jack Wilshere desperately needs to catch Roy Hodgson’s eye as he looks to play his way into England’s starting line-up for the World Cup finals and a run of five successive victories at the end of the Premier League season banished some of the doom and gloom that gathered in the wake of crushing defeats at Chelsea and Everton.
And yet the vagaries of cup football mean nothing can be taken for granted. Arsenal lost the 2011 Carling Cup final to Birmingham when defeat appeared out of the question, while Wigan’s triumph over Manchester City 12 months ago proved that the FA Cup final has lost none of its potential to surprise.
Bereft of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic, the January signings that did so much to haul Hull comfortably clear of the relegation zone, Steve Bruce’s side lack should be compliant victims.
They lack star appeal, yet that has been true throughout a cup run that has already seen the Tigers dispose of Middlesbrough and Sunderland, as well as Southend, Brighton and Sheffield United.
Hull have unquestionably benefited from an inviting route to Wembley, but in Matty Fryatt, who has scored four goals on the run to the final, and Yannick Sagbo, who scored the opening goal in the semi-final, they boast players who have come alive during the cup campaign.
A run of one point from the final five league matches is hardly the best way to head into a Wembley showpiece, but Hull are not the first team to have switched off with little to play for in the build-up to an FA Cup final. And others have successfully switched themselves back on again once the action gets under way.
As a three-time FA Cup winner with Manchester United as a player, Bruce will ensure his side are primed to cause an upset this afternoon, and provided they can contain Arsenal for the opening 45 minutes, they will hope to exploit any nervousness that spreads through their opponents’ ranks in the closing stages.
Like Wenger, Arsenal’s players know they cannot fail again. That knowledge could inspire them to victory, or cause them to freeze in the manner of Manchester City last season. Either way, indifference will not be an issue, and on FA Cup final day, that is a welcome state of affairs.