FA Cup final: Manchester United, Chelsea desperate for silverware to put gloss on underwhelming season
While Mourinho may be hoping that Manchester United's FA Cup success serves as a platform to build upon next season, Conte looks likely to leave Chelsea in the aftermath of the final, whatever the outcome.
The mood going into the FA Cup final is not the same as it used to be. This usually happens when rivals have wrapped up big prizes, and games like the FA Cup final are of little importance for two of the biggest teams in world football. Both Manchester United and Chelsea have one last chance to finish the campaign with silverware when they face each other in a heavyweight Wembley showdown on Saturday. However, the game will not be about one team adding a trophy to embellish the cabinet. It'll just be a consolation prize.
Both clubs and managers – Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte – are surrounded by heavy grey clouds, with neither United nor Chelsea meeting expectations this season.
For United, a win over Chelsea will put them level with Arsenal as the competition's most successful club with 13 FA Cups. But considering how neighbours Manchester City cruised to the Premier League title, amassing a record-breaking 100 points and other records, and with long-time rivals Liverpool on the verge of European glory, an FA Cup success will just be a 'mickey mouse' trophy compared to what their biggest rivals could achieve.
There is no doubt that Pep Guardiola has outmuscled Mourinho in every aspect this season despite United's come-from-behind win over City in April that denied the citizens from winning the title against their bitter rivals at home. The Spanish coach's pragmatism has ushered City to greater heights, while Mourinho is struggling to build a balanced side – like he had at Porto, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Chelsea with youngsters and experienced players — that is ready to challenge not only for domestic titles but also for European honours.
United did win the League Cup and Europa League last season, which is great, but they hardly measure up when the club gloats about winning bigger prizes.
Meanwhile, Chelsea's miserable campaign has left Conte's position in a highly precarious state. In a twist of fortunes, Conte won the Premier League title 12 months ago in his first season at Chelsea, but a fifth-place finish this season could see Conte part ways with the London Club. Even if he manages to win at Wembley on Saturday, it's unlikely that he will save his job.
Both United and Chelsea haven't addressed their failings. Mourinho is moving the club in the right direction but it's taking more time than usual, while Conte's pragmatic approach is failing despite instant success last season.
It's surprising to know that United, who finished second behind champions City by 19 points, have defeated all the top five clubs at least once this season, yet they have struggled to register wins over promoted sides and relegated clubs.
For Chelsea, who have had an on and off season, the next campaign will be about Thursday nights and long travels for Europa League matches. If reports in the British press are to be believed, they'll be attempting to rebuild the team yet again under a new manager. It's not new for owner Roman Abramovich but someone needs to tell him that changing managers isn't really the correct way to lead a club of such stature.
So, winning the FA Cup won't hide the cracks to what has been an under-delivered season for United and Chelsea.
Mourinho Conte rivalry in focus
It's not only a clash between two of England's most successful teams, but also an intense match between Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, who have developed a bitter rivalry over the past two years. Could we have asked for more?
The personal animosity between the two managers could spill over on Saturday. Mourinho and Conte's mutual dislike for each other over the last couple of seasons has been for all to see.
Conte's celebration of his side's 4-0 victory over United in the 2016-17 season was the beginning of the very public spat with Mourinho, who has over-celebrated and sprinted up and down the touchline, labelling the Italian's behaviour as clown-like.
The duo has sniped and snarked at each other since then, with Mourinho winding up his counterpart over hair transplants and match-fixing bans in Serie A, while the Italian took a jibe at his opposite number by calling the United boss a 'little-man' and suggesting he suffers from senile dementia.
However, both managers appear to have buried the hatchet in the build-up to the final, with Mourinho confirming peace talks between the two.
"It's okay. It's okay. He stretched out (to shake hands), I stretched out. We got bored," Mourinho told Portuguese news outlet Record. "After the game in Manchester, I invited him to come to my office. We talked. Nothing's wrong."
But there is still the potential for fireworks on the touchline as it just takes one incident, and you suspect that if either manager is going to start something like that, it will be Mourinho.
While Mourinho may be hoping that FA Cup success serves as a platform to build upon next season, Conte looks likely to leave Chelsea in the aftermath of the final, whatever the outcome.
It will be interesting to see whether Paul Pogba shows up in yet another crucial tie. The Frenchman is capable of winning matches on his own, but could also do nothing. Mourinho has played him in the three-man midfield that should theoretically get the best from him, but his patchy form has been a worry. Nemanja Matic has exceeded expectations, while Ander Herrera hardly has a bad game against Chelsea. Who knows he could end up man-marking Hazard yet again.
Mourinho also has an array of attacking options at his disposal with Alexis Sanchez, Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford upfront.
On the other hand, Conte might want to line-up a two-man midfield as the performances of Ross Barkley and Tiemoue Bakayoko have been nothing but rudderless. The ever-reliable Cesc Fabregas and N'Golo Kante make a fine midfield pair, but a three-man midfield against United could prove useful as they lack balance and hence it's easier for players to exploit spaces in midfield.
Hazard, Willian and Pedro will provide pace upfront and will be a constant threat to United's back four. Also, we could see Olivier Giroud start ahead of the under-fire Alvaro Morata on Saturday. That shouldn't surprise many. But, whoever wins the midfield battle, takes the FA Cup trophy home.
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