The FA Cup is down to the semifinal stage, offering three young managers a great chance to collect a first piece of English silverware in their coaching careers.
The biggest problem facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta? The other manager involved at Wembley Stadium this weekend just cannot stop winning trophies.
Pep Guardiola has led Manchester City to eight of the last 10 domestic trophies on offer, including Community Shields, in one of the most dominant periods by any English team.
The Premier League may have been relinquished to Liverpool this season but City still has designs on a rare cup treble, having already captured the English League Cup and holding a 2-1 lead going into the second leg of their Champions League last-16 matchup with Real Madrid next month.
That is the quality that Solskjaer’s Manchester United, Lampard’s Chelsea and Arteta’s Arsenal are up against as the teams head to English soccer’s empty national stadium for the right to play in a Aug. 1 final that will round off the country’s longest ever season, lasting nearly 12 months.
City takes on Arsenal in the first semifinal match on Saturday, followed by United vs. Chelsea on Sunday in the first top-level games held at Wembley since soccer’s restart last month.
While Guardiola has had the luxury of rotating his team for league matches every three or four days since the restart, United, Chelsea and — to a slightly lesser extent — Arsenal have been involved in a furious race for European qualification and won’t be arriving at Wembley as fresh as City, the defending FA Cup champion.
United is on a 19-match unbeaten run in all competitions under Solskjaer so might be favored in what looks to be tightest of the semifinals, on paper at least. Chelsea is above United in the league, by a point, but hasn’t been as consistent since the turn of the year.
Arsenal has lost its last seven matches against City, conceding three goals on six of those occasions. However, the London team did beat City in the FA Cup semifinals in April 2017 near the end of Guardiola’s first season in charge of the holders, who weren’t the trophy-winning machine then that they are now.
ARSENAL VS. MAN CITY
It is another meeting between Guardiola and his former assistant at City, Arteta, who joined Arsenal in December for his first senior coaching job and is already starting to make an impact.
A 2-1 win over Liverpool on Wednesday showed Arsenal is on the right path under Arteta, who has been widely tipped as a potential successor to Guardiola at Etihad Stadium.
“I expect a terribly tough, tough, tough game, because they have something special already,” Guardiola said.
“They have team spirit (that) Mikel has created. From the outside — maybe I’m wrong — but what I see in their games, how they celebrate, how they fight for every single ball, they are creating something special for this club.”
Arsenal is attempting to become the first team to reach 21 FA Cup finals and will welcome back captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who started on the bench against Liverpool.
City usually fields reserve goalkeeper Claudio Bravo in cup games but he is injured, so Ederson Moraes will keep his place. City fielded a virtual reserve team in the 2-1 win over Bournemouth in the league in midweek.
CHELSEA VS. MAN UNITED
Lampard has rejected Solskjaer’s claim that Chelsea has an unfair advantage in Sunday’s match because it has had longer to prepare.
While Chelsea last played on Tuesday in a 1-0 win over Norwich, United has already two games this week — a 2-2 draw against Southampton on Monday and a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Thursday.
“We’re in a period where we’re playing games all the time, very regularly, and you become ‘play, recover, play again, recover.’ You work with the squad as it is,” Lampard said. “It’s an age-old question (by) a lot of managers. You probably dig out the times when I’ve mentioned it, but at the same time it isn’t about advantage or not. Sometimes it works in your favor to be playing regularly and ticking over.”
United has the Europa League as well as FA Cup to aim for in the remaining weeks of the season. Like Chelsea, though, the priority is to finish in the top four and secure a Champions League qualification spot.
With two league games left, United is in fifth place, tied on points with fourth-place Leicester and a point behind Chelsea.
“We are fine,” Solskjaer said. “We are fit and the players are raring to go and want to play again.
“Of course anyone can hold their hands up at any moment and say, ‘I want to sit out this one.’ We have players on the bench desperate to join in.”
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80