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Saturday 21 April 2018

Can Alexis Sanchez finally decide a big game? 10 questions ahead of the FA Cup final

Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez
Arsenal forward Alexis Sanchez

From Alexis Sanchez needing to dominate a big occasion to Christian Benteke putting himself in the shop window - 10 big issues for the FA Cup final...

1. Can Sanchez dominate a big game?

Alexis Sanchez's status as Arsenal's new totem is beyond dispute: his first season in English football has been a huge success, with his energy and quality lifting Arsenal's game to a new level. And yet... there is still the nagging concern that he has yet to truly dominate a red-letter occasion for his new club. Yes, there was a goal in the early-season draw against Manchester City and the romp against Liverpool in April, but beyond that - very little. No goals in six games against Tottenham, Manchester United or Chelsea is a record which demands improvement: Saturday would be a good time to start.

Alexis Sanchez's impressive first season with Arsenal has been recognised

2. Wenger's big call - Ospina or Szczesny?

Arsene Wenger's first team selection decision is also his hardest - who to play in goal? Convention dictates he should allow Wojciech Szczesny, who has donned the gloves throughout the FA Cup run, another chance at Wembley, just as he did with Lukas Fabianski last season. But Szczesny's erratic form and uncertain future could just persuade Wenger to lean towards David Ospina, who has been largely blameless since replacing Szczesny in January.

Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina does well to keep hold of the ball as a challenge flies in from QPR's Charlie Austin

3. Can Benteke put himself in the shop window?

No player had a bigger role in keeping Villa out of trouble than Benteke. He scored 13 goals in the last 14 games of the season after being revitalised under Tim Sherwood, and underlined why Villa saw the need to insert a £35million release clause in his contract when he joined in 2012. This is another chance for Benteke to convince would-be suitors of his prowess, with Liverpool among those monitoring his situation.

Christian Benteke has scored 12 goals in his last 12 games ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final with Arsenal

4. Will the final live up to what's gone before?

The FA Cup will never be quite restored to its former lustre but this has been a fine year for the old tournament: Bradford beating Chelsea, Middlesbrough winning at Manchester City and Villa dashing the dreams of a Wembley farewell for Steven Gerrard were all captivating storylines, and served as a reminder of how the Cup can still pull on the nation's sporting heartstrings. What it does need, however, is a classic final: Arsenal's win over Hull last year was the best final in years for end-to-end drama, but lacked sustained quality. A mix of both on Saturday, and even flinty-hearted cynics would have to yield to the Cup's charms.

Bradford City's Irish midfielder Mark Yeates (C) drops to his knees as he celebrates scoring his team's fourth goal against Chelsea

5. Can 'Tactics' Tim outwit the Old Master?

Tim Sherwood wears his tactical prowess as proudly as one of his gilets, and the chance to deliver a chalkboard-inspired masterclass to Arsene Wenger will be a key motivating force. For all Wenger's qualities, Arsenal remain a fairly predictable team to plan against so the interest will be in how Sherwood sets up his Villa team: expect him to flood midfield, use the pace of Charles N'Zogbia and Jack Grealish down the flanks and hope Benteke can batter Arsenal into submission on his own up front.

SOCCER Vill_37.jpg
Aston Villa manager Tim Sherwood during the Barclays Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham (Nick Potts/PA Wire)

6. How empty will the posh seats be after 50 minutes?

The enduring sight of hundreds of empty seats around the two dug-outs either side of half-time - as Wembley's posher patrons scramble to and from the executive bars - is one of the great embarrassments of the new national stadium, particularly as they are slap bang opposite Wembley's main TV camera point. You would like to think FA Cup final day would make them more engaged, but that is probably wishful thinking...

FA Vase Final match between North Shields and Glossop North End at Wembley Stadium on May 9, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

7. Will Jack Grealish come of age?

Villa's 19-year-old wonderkid might not quite be in the Harry Kane class of youthful revelation, but he's not far off. His all-energy performances for Villa since breaking into first team contention at the end of December have been a revelation. It is a tall order to ask a teenager to take centre-stage against a team of Arsenal's quality, but a dominant performance would really signal Grealish's arrival at the highest level.


8. Will Walcott or Giroud get the nod for Arsenal?

Before last weekend, the odds on Walcott ousting Olivier Giroud from Arsenal's Cup final team would have been fantastical. The French striker might not have been in form, but he was still a better bet than Walcott, whose season can be divided equally between being injured and dealing with questions over his future. Then came his superb hat-trick against an admittedly anaemic West Brom, and suddenly Wenger has been left with a decision to make. Giroud offers power and muscle, and has been trusted by Wenger for most of the season, but Walcott's pace could stretch a Villa defence which lacks speed. The alternative would be to play both in a front three, but that would mean one of Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla missing out in midfield.

Jack Grealish aware of England interest

9. Is this the last hurrah for Mertesacker?

Arsenal may have tightened up defensively this season, but few would quibble with the argument that reinforcing their back-line is a key priority for Arsene Wenger this summer - and Per Mertesacker is the player whose position appears most under threat. The Germany international has never looked entirely comfortable with the pace and power that Premier League attacks routinely pose, and he has leaned heavily on Laurent Koscielny to atone for his shortcomings - particularly with his pace, or lack of it. Villa's speedsters will relish the chance to run at him in Wembley's wide open spaces and do not be surprised if tomorrow's game proves his Arsenal swansong.

Per Mertesacker believes Arsenal can secure a positive end to the Premier League campaign

10. Will Southampton really want Arsenal to win?

Arsenal retaining the FA Cup would propel Southampton, who finished seventh, into next season's Europa League - although whether that would generate much enthusiasm on the south coast is another matter entirely. The competition tends to sound the death knell for a team's Premier League prospects and Southampton's squad does not necessarily look strong enough to withstand a battle on that front.

Southampton's Shane Long celebrates scoring their fifth goal

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