FA Cup Final preview: Will Arsenal end their trophy drought?

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The FA Cup final kicks off on Saturday, with Arsenal and Hull City meeting at Wembley at 12 noon ET.

It’s all new for Hull, who’ve never made it to the FA Cup final before – and who, no matter what the outcome, will be headed into the Europa League next season. But that doesn’t meant the Tigers will be staring around naively as Arsenal run circles around them. They proved themselves capable of causing trouble in the league by beating Liverpool and topping Newcastle (back when Newcastle could still score) and they might have an upset left in them.

But even the most die-hard Hull fan likely admits that Arsenal have the edge in this one. Hull picked up just one point from their last five league matches, and that was a draw to Fulham. The Gunners, meanwhile, have won their last five, including a 3-0 victory over Hull back in April.

Plus, Arsenal may be fired along by just a touch more desire. A trophy’s been a long time coming for the club, with the last one lifted an FA Cup, back in 2005. And although Arsène Wenger insists that his contract extension does not hinge on his team finally picking up another piece of hardware for the cabinet, it may very well figure in to the deal that’s yet to be announced.

With Hull known to be pragmatic (or, to be frank, a bit boring) will this be a dull 120 minutes, finished off by a penalty shootout? Or will Steve Bruce throw caution to the wind, telling his team that they have nothing to lose by attacking Arsenal?

The road to the final

Arsenal: The Gunners’ FA Cup adventure started off in the most satisfactory of ways, with a 2-0 victory over North London rivals Tottenham. Then came an easy 4-0 victory over League One side Coventry City. The Gunners must’ve felt nervous when Liverpool came to town, as they’d just lost 5-1 to the Reds the week before. But Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored early, and Lukas Podolski added a second shortly after the restart. Steven Gerrard’s penalty put the visitors on the board, but in the end it was a 2-1 Arsenal victory.

Next up it was Everton. Despite another early goal, this one from Mesut Özil, the sides were level at the break. Then the Gunners scored three in the second half. The 4-1 win took them to Wembley to face cup-holders Wigan – who proved to be their toughest opponents yet. Per Mertesacker got a late equalizer to force a penalty shootout, in which Lukasz Fabianski played the hero by saving two of Wigan’s strikes.

Hull: After forcing Tottenham to extra time in the Fourth Round of the League Cup, only to crash out on penalties, Hull may have felt rather confident about their chances in the FA Cup. A Third Round draw to Championship side Middlesbrough made it easy for the Tigers to progress, 2-0. The next round was even easier, with Hull drawn against League 2 side Southend United. Another 2-0 win and it was off to Brighton to take on one of the best sides in the Championship. Hull came unstuck, needing a late equalizer from Yannick Sagbo to force a replay, which they won 2-1.

Hull’s easiest match was, surprisingly, against Sunderland, their only Premier League opposition in the tournament. Curtis Davies, David Meyler, and Matty Fryatt all scored inside ten minutes in the second half. Then it was on to face League One side Sheffield United in the semi-finals at Wembley. The Blades had already disposed of Premier League sides Aston Villa and Fulham, and looked set to do the same to Hull. But the Tigers kept roaring back, eventually sealing a 5-3 win to move on to the final.

What they’re saying

Hull manager Steve Bruce, on his club’s chances“The pressure will be on Arsenal because they have not won anything for a while,” Bruce said, way back in April, after the conclusion of the semi-finals. “They are a great side, they have great tradition and great history with a top-class manager. We are up against it but we will do our best.”

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger on that pressure“There is a huge desire for us to finish the job in the FA Cup. There is a pressure there, a big one, but a positive one and we want to take that opportunity,” said Wenger“It’s an opportunity for us to crown our season. There is always a huge expectancy. It brings pressure but we played many games in the season under that pressure and tension. That experience will help us in the final.”

Prediction

No surprises in this one. Bruce is not likely to deviate from his plan, but Arsenal’s attack – particularly with Aaron Ramsey back – will be able to pick apart the Hull defense. The Gunners will finally have another trophy to polish up.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands…

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that didn’t “want to influence the next manager.”

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still had one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season. The growing notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger.

Roma condemn violent scenes outside Anfield

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AS Roma have condemned an attack from some of its supporters on Liverpool’s fans before the game after a 53-year-old Liverpool supporter was injured outside Anfield before the UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg on Tuesday.

The Serie A side said that a “small minority of traveling fans brought shame on the club” as two men from Rome have been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after the attack on the Liverpool fan who is in a critical condition after suffering head injuries.

Below is the statement in full from the Italian club.

AS Roma condemns in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent behavior of a small minority of traveling fans who brought shame on the club and the vast majority of Roma’s well-behaved supporters at Anfield after getting involved in clashes with Liverpool supporters before last night’s fixture.

There is no place for this type of vile behavior in football and the club is now cooperating with Liverpool Football Club, UEFA and the authorities. The club’s thoughts and prayers are with the 53-year-old Liverpool fan in hospital and his family at this time.

Salah’s sensational season in context

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Mohamed Salah is having a season on the same level as Lionel Messi.

Some* will even say it’s better.

[ MORE: LFC 2-1 Roma | Klopp reacts ]

There are few ways to overstate how well the Egyptian has performed for Liverpool this season, and few matches have been as strong as Tuesday’s destruction of AS Roma.

Make no mistake about it: Destruction is the right word. I Lupi isn’t dead thanks to the Reds right side of the defense and James Milner‘s arm, but it was fading out of consciousness when Salah departed the game.

It’s not crazy to draw the connection. Just ask Jurgen Klopp:

“If anyone wants to say it is my mistake that we concede the two goals because I change the striker, I have no problem with that,” he said. “Mo was running all the time and it would not have helped us if he gets an injury. What a player. If you think he is the best in the world, write it or say it. He is in outstandingly good shape, world-class shape, but to be the best in the world you need to do it over a longer period, I think. The other two are not bad.”

No, no they are not, but Salah is on their level.

The aesthetics of his first goal were first-class, dinging off the bottom of the cross bar like a vicious swish of a Steph Curry three. When the night ended, Salah had two more goals and two more assists to bring his total to 43 goals and 15 assists in 47 matches. In three more matches, the best player on the planet has 40 and 18 (Ronaldo has 42 and 7 in 39).

[ MORE: LFC supporter in critical condition after Roma attack ]

The reason not to overreact is Luis Suarez’s 2013-14, in which he posted posted 31 goals and 24 assists in 37 games and would’ve arguably made Salah’s season look just “pretty great” if the Reds were in European football (or, one could argue, Suarez wasn’t slowed by the demands of a more congested adventure).

And we also won’t know Salah’s path next season. Take Cristiano Ronaldo’s 2007-08 season, the closest thing we have to Suarez or Salah in this generation. The then-23-year-old posted 42+8 in 49, but took a step back the next season before exploding into space upon debut with Madrid the following season (His second Real campaign, 2010-11, was the first real otherworldly CR7 campaign, with 53+18 in 54).

Salah is the Premier League Player of the Year, and he’s the front-runner for the Ballon d’Or (which is likely to be determined by this summer’s World Cup in Russia, with Argentina and Portugal possibly on a quarterfinal collision course and Egypt in an very winnable Group A with Russia, Uruguay, and Saudi Arabia).

Jurgen Klopp deserves much credit for Salah’s explosion. Even if the Egyptian began his ascent in Italy, there’s been nothing like this. And if he can do it a few more years, he has the chance to land amongst the generational names in soccer (perhaps as the best African player in Premier League history with Yaya Toure and Didier Drogba).

He’ll almost certainly become the all-time single-season Liverpool league goal scorer this season barring rest for the UCL, and he’ll be their top all-time according to Opta if he nabs four or more goals across 4-5 matches (Roma again, Stoke, Chelsea, Brighton, and probably Real Madrid or Bayern Munich).

The Reds were unbelievably good for 80 minutes on Tuesday — 75 of which were Salah-led — and the praise would’ve been flowing like a waterfall had they not switched off for 10 (in which it must be said Liverpool was fortunate to only concede twice!).

*By the way, Messi fans, you’ll be relieved to count me as not one of those who’d say Salah is having a better season. It’s closer than you think. Messi is better than Salah in league play, while Salah is having a superior UCL campaign. Given the general consensus top-to-bottom on Premier League vs. La Liga and Barca’s UCL competition vs. Liverpool’s opponents — which is drawing level now — we’d say it’s even.

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Messi 0.4-0.31
Key passes: Messi, 2.16-1.63
Chances created: Messi, 2.56-1.94
Attack score: Messi, 73.04-54.5
Possession score: Messi, 5.6 to minus-5.12
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-77
Shot accuracy: Even (62%)
Tackles won: Salah, 0.24-0.2
Take-ons won (%): Messi, 69.47-64.96

Messi vs. Salah league play (per 90, Squawka)
Assists: Salah, 0.45-0.23
Key passes: Salah, 2.13-1.72
Chances created: Salah, 2.58-1.95
Attack score: Salah, 70.89-55.69
Possession score: Messi, 2.71 to minus-3.34
Pass completion (%): Messi, 81-73
Shot accuracy(%): Salah, 73-69
Tackles won: Messi, 0.69-.45
Take-ons won (%): Salah, 76.4-61.4

How long is Sebastian Giovinco for Toronto FC?

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While Toronto FC’s CONCACAF Champions League success has largely been driven by Sebastian Giovinco — Wednesday’s final second leg not withstanding — perhaps the Reds’ brass isn’t convinced the diminutive 31-year-old can keep it up much longer (at least in terms of value).

[ MORE: Behind the scenes at NYCFC training ]

Toronto’s dynamic Designated Player says he wants to stay in Ontario, implying that he’d like to be there for the rest of his career, but TFC’s brass may not want to pony up DP dollars for the next stage of Giovinco’s career.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson:

“I already talk, but they said it’s not the moment (for contract talks),” Giovinco told the Sun. “For them, that’s not a problem, for me it is a little bit. I want to know my future. I have family. I’m 31 years old. For what I do for the city, I think I deserve it, no? … For them it’s not a problem, for me it’s starting to be a problem … I already said I want to stay here forever … If not, I have to think about other options.”

Let’s look into Seba’s success. The Italian has three goals and four assists in seven CCL matches (though scoreless through three MLS matches).

2017: 32 games, 20 goals, seven assists (6W-3L-2T w/o him)
2016: 37 games, 22 goals, 16 assists (1W-1L-4T w/o him)
2015: 35 games, 23 goals, 14 assists (0W-2L w/o him)

The assist numbers took a hit with the emergence of Victor Vazquez, but the ex-Barcelona man is also 31 years old. Michael Bradley turns 31 this summer, and Jozy Altidore is 29 in November.

Who will stay long-term? Who could general manager Tim Bezbatchenko have in mind as replacements, upgrades, or buttressing? Inquiring minds are