FA Cup final preview: Will Chelsea or Leicester lift the trophy at Wembley?

Coaches Thomas Tuchel and Brendan Rodgers will battle it out to try to win their first trophy in English football when Chelsea and Leicester City meet in Saturday’s FA Cup final at Wembley (12.15 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+, U.S. only).

It’s a game that will see two of the Premier League‘s top teams face off to win the oldest cup competition in football, with the FA Cup first contested in 1871-72.

Chelsea are aiming to win their ninth FA Cup (and seventh this century), which would put them clear in third on the all-time list behind Manchester United (12) and Arsenal (14). Leicester, who stunned the football world by winning the 2015-16 Premier League title, go into their first FA Cup final since 1969 looking to win it for the first time.

Is it going to be a close game?

It’s the first time since 2007, when title winners Man United lost to league runners-up Chelsea, that the final will be contested by two teams in the top four, so it promises to be an evenly balanced game with no clear favourite.

Leicester are third in the Premier League, two points ahead of Chelsea, heading into the final week of the league season, and there is little to separate the two sides in recent form. Over the last 10 league games, Chelsea sit third in the form table with six wins, two draws and two defeats. Leicester are fifth having won five, drawn twice and lost three times.

A 2-0 defeat at Leicester in January proved to be Frank Lampard’s last league game as Chelsea manager; he was sacked less than a week later and replaced by Thomas Tuchel. Coincidentally, the two teams meet again in the Premier League at Stamford Bridge next Tuesday in a game that will be crucial for Champions League qualification.

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How has Thomas Tuchel changed Chelsea?

Tuchel, 47, started the season in charge of Paris Saint-Germain before being sacked in December, but he could finish the campaign by guiding Chelsea to success in the FA Cup and Champions League.

When Tuchel replaced Lampard in mid-January, Chelsea were ninth in the Premier League and losing ground on the top four, but he’s overseen a dramatic transformation with 17 victories and three defeats in his 26 games in all competitions. Tuchel won domestic cups in Germany and France with Borussia Dortmund and PSG, and he’s elevated Chelsea, bringing defensive solidity (18 clean sheets in 26 games) and coaxing much-improved form out of expensive forwards Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, as well as restoring defenders Antonio Rudiger and Marcos Alonso to the team.

Under Tuchel, Chelsea eliminated Man City at the semifinal stage and also beat Pep Guardiola’s team, whom they will also face in the Champions League final in Portugal on May 29, in the Premier League last week.

What about Brendan Rodgers?

Leicester were 11th in the Premier League and closer to the relegation zone than the top four when Rodgers left Celtic to replace Claude Puel in February 2019. Since then, Leicester have been on an upwards trajectory, winning 57 of Rodgers’ 108 games in charge. They finished fifth last season and on course to improve on that this time around.

Rodgers has brought stylish football to the King Power Stadium, and also turned the club into the one most likely to break up the so-called “Big Six.” He has revived the career of 34-year-old striker Jamie Vardy and has improved emerging stars such as James Maddison, Kelechi Iheanacho, Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans.

The former Liverpool manager won seven major honours in less than three years at Celtic, but he has yet to win a trophy in English football. Lifting the FA Cup would be a huge boost to his reputation and put him in contention for bigger jobs in the Premier League and Europe.

Who are the key players?

Having been overlooked consistently by Lampard, playing just nine games, Rudiger has been crucial to Chelsea’s revival under Tuchel. In 19 league games without the Germany defender, Chelsea have conceded 26 goals, but they have shipped just seven in the 17 games he has started. Rudiger was rested for Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat against Arsenal, but is expected to be fit to take his place at centre-back against Leicester.

Former Leicester midfielder N’Golo Kante is another key man for Chelsea, while the recent attacking form of Christian Pulisic and Havertz make them big players for Tuchel.

Jonny Evans is similarly important to Leicester, but the former Man United defender has a 50-50 chance to play due to a heel injury that forced him to miss the team’s last two games. The 33-year-old is regarded as the glue that holds Leicester’s defence together, meaning his absence would be a major blow.

Leicester will need Maddison and Tielemans on form in midfield and hope that former Man City striker Iheanacho can extend a run that has seen him score 13 goals in his last 12 games.

How did the two teams get to the final?

Leicester beat Championship teams Stoke City and Brentford before winning an all-Premier League tie against Brighton in round five, when Iheanacho scored the only goal of the game in the 90th minute. Man United were eliminated in a 3-1 quarterfinal win at the King Power Stadium, before Iheanacho earned a 1-0 victory over Southampton in the semis.

Chelsea started their FA Cup campaign with a 4-0 win against League Two Morecambe before beating Championship sides Luton Town and Barnsley in rounds four and five. Sheffield United were then beaten 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in the quarterfinals, with Hakim Ziyech‘s goal sealing a 1-0 semifinal win against Man City.

What about Leicester’s FA Cup final record?

Several clubs have lost more finals than Leicester — Manchester United and Everton share the unenviable record of having lost eight — but those teams have all won the cup on at least once. Leicester have made it to four FA Cup finals and lost them all — in 1949, 1961, 1963 and 1969 — which gives them the distinction of most final appearances without lifting the trophy.

Recent history is also against Leicester. Of the last 25 finals, only two (Portsmouth 2008, Wigan 2013) have been won by clubs outside the so-called “Big Six.” During that period, Arsenal (8), Chelsea (7), Man Utd (4), Man City (2) and Liverpool (2) have dominated. Tottenham, the other “Big Six” team, haven’t won the FA Cup since 1991.

Will fans be allowed into Wembley?

Yes. A crowd of 21,000, the largest in England since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in March 2020, will be attending. An attendance of 8,000 was allowed for the Carabao Cup final at Wembley between Man City and Tottenham last month and, with that proving a success, the crowd limit has been raised for Saturday’s game.

Supporters will not need to have been vaccinated to gain entry, but they will have to provide a negative COVID-19 test within 36 hours of kick-off.

The game is designated as a test event by the UK government and the success, or otherwise, will influence the number of fans allowed to watch Euro 2020 games at Wembley in June and July.

Who is the referee? What about VAR?

Michael Oliver will take charge as referee, with Stuart Burt and Simon Bennett running the lines as his assistants. Stuart Attwell has been appointed as fourth official after an injury to Paul Tierney. Sian Massey-Ellis will become the first female official to be involved in the final, having been appointed as assistant video assistant referee to the VAR, Chris Kavanagh.

The English Football Association have invited Ben Kay, the groundsman at League One club Accrington Stanley, to support the Wembley pitch team in the build-up to the final after he helped ensure that non-league Chorley’s third-round tie against Derby County went ahead despite sub-zero temperatures. Kay and his colleagues slept on the Chorley pitch overnight and rotated small heaters to prevent the playing surface from freezing.

Prediction time: Who wins?

This could be the closest final in years, but much depends on the fitness of Leicester defender Jonny Evans. If he fails to make it, it is tough to see how the Foxes can keep out Chelsea’s attacking players.

Chelsea have become one of the best teams in Europe during Tuchel’s short time in charge. They have the goal threat and defensive organisation to win and set themselves up for a trophy double ahead of the Champions League final.

Chelsea 2, Leicester 1