As has been the case for a while now, Aston Villa have injury problems at the back. Ciaran Clark is still out with the knee injury sustained against Tottenham last month and Chris Herd has knee ligament damage, while both Kieran Richardson and Jonas Okore are doubtful. The goalkeeper Shay Given, having played every FA Cup this season could miss out with a groin strain, which would mean Brad Guzan starting despite him losing his place in the league side midway through Tim Sherwood’s brief reign.
Danny Welbeck is the big doubt for Arsenal, who are likely to be without Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy, both of whom lack match fitness as they recover from long-term injuries.
Both sides suffered end-of-season drift after achieving their objectives. As they wrapped up third place and so avoided next season’s Champions League play-off, they went three games in a row without scoring before clicking into gear on the final day of the season with a Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott-inspired victory over West Bromwich Albion.
Villa, after securing their Prmeier League survival with a win over West Ham United, then crashed 6-1 at Southampton and went down 1-0 at Burnley on the final day of the season. Their form before then, beating Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final as part of a run of four wins in five games, suggests a side capable of far better.
Arsenal have hammered Villa twice in the league this season – 3-0 at Villa Park and 5-0 at the Emirates in an almost embarrassingly one-sided game. Both of those matches, though, were under Paul Lambert: there is a new resilience about Villa under Sherwood (or there was until the defeat at Southampton).
WENGER’S SELECTION QUESTIONS
Between the Liverpool game on April 6 and the Manchester United game on May 17, Arsene Wenger selected the same starting eleven in six successive games; he had never previously in his time as Arsenal manager gone more than four games without making a change.
By the end of that run, though, his side looked weary; it may just have been the stage of the season or the fact that they had nothing left to play for in the league, but the fall-off was enough to raise the question of whether the occasional change is necessary just to keep a side fresh. With Wilshere and Walcott both excelling against West Brom, there is now a genuine selection issue: does Aaron Ramsey return for Wilshere (or perhaps Santi Cazorla), and does Olivier Giroud return for Walcott?
THE MIDFIELD BATTLE
In the semi-final, it was the midfield three of Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverley who provided the platform for Jack Grealish to pick Liverpool apart. By fielding two central creators behind a front man, Villa did to Liverpool what Liverpool had done to a lot of sides in the previous three months, setting them a problem that conventional formations struggle to handle.
Grealish’s position between Arsenal’s right-sided holding midfielder, the right-back and the right-sided centre-back will be of particular interest. Cazorla has done a fine scampering job at the back of midfield this season, but the threat posed by Grealish on that side poses a real test of how much faith Wenger has in his defensive capabilities.
ALEXIS v BACUNA
One danger of Villa’s formation is that it can leave them narrow. That can make them predictable, channelling everything down the middle, and it also makes them vulnerable to being attacked on the flanks. Alexis Sanchez has been Arsenal’s most impressive attacking player this season, and Villa must guard against him isolation with Leandro Bacuna.
Villa also risk Bacuna, whose attacking thrust helps to offer some width in the final third, becoming bogged down with his defensive duties. There’s a great onus on Cleverley, on the right of the midfield trio, to shuffle across and provide cover for the full-back.
Arsenal are understandably favourites – they’re the better side, they’ve been in more consistent form and they have experience of Wembley finals - but they seem far too short at 1.50. This is a lively and unpredictable Villa side who, at times under Tim Sherwood, have played far above themselves.
Certainly in the semi-final, they seemed inspired by the big stage. And, before the West Brom game, there was a sense of Arsenal just beginning to lose a little of the fluency of the previous two months.
Given how long Villa are, backing them +0.5 at 2.65 on the Asian line seems the obvious bet.