Manchester United and Chelsea will today rekindle their rivalry at the Wembly Stadium. Having placed second and sixth respectively on the Premier League log and both teams bundled out in the second round of the UEFA Champions League, the FA Cup remains the only chance for silverware for them. To add spice to the encounter is the rivalry between the two managers-Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte
Chelsea and Manchester United have a chance to salvage their respective seasons this evening when facing off at Wembley Stadium in the 137th FA Cup final. In a repeat of the 2007 showpiece – the first to be held at this ground – both sides know the importance of victory at the end of a disappointing campaign.
While United can argue that finishing second in the Premier League marks a vast improvement on the previous four years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Antonio Conte has far less ammunition to use when holding talks over his future next week.
Conte’s second season in West London has not gone quite to plan, finding himself under pressure ever since the first game when Burnley picked up a shock 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge, setting the tone for what was to come for both sides.
Throwing away top spot in the Champions League and subsequently being knocked out by Barcelona in the first knockout round was difficult to take, particularly on the back of failing to turn up across two legs against Arsenal in the EFL Cup semis.
Yet in finishing fifth in the Premier League, collecting 23 points fewer than in 2016-17, Conte will surely have little to complain about if ruthless owner Roman Abramovich swings the axe as expected in the coming weeks.
Even if Chelsea were to win an eighth FA Cup, it remains to be seen whether the former Juventus boss would want to stay on. Conte has constantly provided subtle and not-so-subtle hints that he will be on his way this summer regardless of events at Wembley.
What better way to bow out than by lifting a second major honour in English football, then, a year on from a hugely disappointing 2-1 defeat at the hands of Arsenal in the final – a rare low point in the Italian’s maiden campaign on these shores.
Four of Chelsea’s seven previous triumphs in this competition have come in the last 11 years, beginning with an extra-time win against United in the first final to be held at the revamped national stadium, but they have not walked up the famous steps since 2012.
The way the Blues ended their league campaign suggests that their wait may go on, following up a four-match winning run with a draw to Huddersfield Town and 3-0 loss to Newcastle United on the final day, seeing them finish five points adrift of a Champions League spot.
Chelsea have not always been at their best in the FA Cup, either, most notably struggling to shake off Norwich City at the second attempt in round three, but victory in their final match of the season will ensure that a poor campaign suddenly looks slightly better.
Among the numerous sub-plots ahead of today’s game, the most intriguing is surely Jose Mourinho’s latest battle with Conte on the touchline – possibly the final chapter in a long-running saga.
Mourinho has the upper hand on Conte by virtue of finishing as runner-up in the top flight, adding to the EFL Cup and Europa League crown gained last season, and he will take great delight in being the one to strike the killer blow in Conte’s Chelsea reign.
Ending 19 points adrift of Manchester City is hardly cause for celebration, though, and Mourinho therefore needs the FA Cup to ensure that he has United supporters firmly behind him ahead of a big summer of transfer activity.
The Red Devils’ most recent success in this competition, when edging out Crystal Palace 2-1 two years ago, famously brought down the curtain on Louis van Gaal’s underwhelming tenure. A similar outcome this weekend is unlikely, with Mourinho still very much the best available option for United.
A campaign that began nine months ago with defeat to Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup, taking in 55 games since then, finally concludes this weekend and it remains difficult to ascertain whether the season as a whole can be considered a success.
Defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion – making it three losses to promoted clubs this term – and a goalless draw with West Ham United sapped any sort of positivity out of United’s supporters, making the 1-0 win against Watford on the final day, as uninspiring as it was, all the more important to build some momentum.
A second FA Cup final triumph in three seasons, and a joint-record 13 overall – matching Arsenal’s tally would be the ideal way for Mourinho to prove that he remains a serial winner, even if his style of play has been questioned repeatedly throughout the campaign.
Their path to this stage has been straightforward enough, brushing aside Derby County, Yeovil Town, Huddersfield Town and Brighton without conceding a goal, before earning a 2-1 comeback victory over Tottenham Hotspur here last month.
United have already beaten each of their top-six rivals since the turn of the year, including Chelsea in the most recent league meeting, suggesting that Mourinho does still have the knack of picking up results exactly when it matters.
Meanwhile, Conte has sid his fractious relationship with Jose Mourinho is in the past and will shake hands with him before the final.
The pair were engaged in a lengthy feud since the Italian’s arrival at Stamford Bridge, which ignited as the FA Cup began in January with insults growing in their intensity.
However, the Italian played down any conflict in Friday’s press conference, saying: “This is not important, what happened in the past.
“There is a relationship between me and him. Tomorrow (today) I will shake his hand and both of us will think of the game.”
Conte confirmed left-back Emerson is Chelsea’s only absentee for the Wembley showpiece, while United striker Romelu Lukaku faces a late fitness test on an ankle injury.
Conte is not paying too much attention to whether the former Chelsea man features or not.
He said: “We’re talking about an important player but Manchester United have the possibility to pick many important players.
“I don’t know what is the decision. But for sure if Lukaku doesn’t play there are great players to play for him.
“You don’t change your plan or prepare your plan only for one player. If Lukaku is not playing it means they have another important striker. Marcus Rashford, for example, could play.”
Speculation is rife that today’s match will be Conte’s last after two years as head coach but the 48-year-old was giving little away.
“I can say for sure this will be my last match this season,” he said. “For me and my players it will be the last game, for us.
“Then, as you know very well, I have a contract and I’m committed to the club.”
Asked if he expected it to be a summer of change, Conte added: “I don’t know.
“For sure I think we must be focused on today’s game. For us this game is very important because we have, in a difficult season, to finish the season with a trophy. It’s always important for the players, for the coach, for the manager, for our fans, for the club, to finish the season with a trophy. We’re focused on this target. We have to try to do everything to win the game on Saturday.”
• This is the eighth time that United have faced off against Chelsea at Wembley, meaning that they have played the Blues more often here than any other side.
• It is the first time that they have met at the national stadium since the 2010 Community Shield, which the West Londoners lost 3-1.
• The last FA Cup tie between the sides finished in a 1-0 win for Chelsea in last season’s quarter-final at Stamford Bridge, with N’Golo Kante netting a rare and decisive goal.