LONDON (Reuters) - Antonio Conte has already surpassed expectations in his first year as Chelsea manager and a victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Arsenal would complete arguably the greatest season in the club’s history.
A second Double, following the one completed by Conte’s fellow Italian Carlo Ancelotti in 2010, was not even on the radar last August when all the talk was of an expected battle for supremacy between Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United.
Yet Conte’s side rewrote the script and swept to the Premier League title by seven points from Tottenham Hotspur and are the favourites to round off a remarkable campaign by beating the Gunners at Wembley.
Ancelotti’s powerhouse side, featuring the likes of John Terry, Didier Drogba, Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard, had been favourites for the title and enjoyed a relatively straightforward run to the Cup final where they beat a Portsmouth side who were already relegated.
Conte’s side, largely unchanged from the one that finished in a woeful 10th place in the Premier League last season, beat Manchester United in the quarter-finals and title-rivals Tottenham in the semis, and now face the competition’s most successful club in the showpiece final.
Chelsea skipper John Terry, who will leave the club at the end of the season after 22 years, said that anything other than a win would tarnish their achievements.
“You work all season long to be where you want to be and lift that trophy so the lads are fully focused,” five-times Cup winner Terry, who is likely to be on the bench on Saturday, told a news conference on Wednesday.
“I’ve been on the receiving end of losing Cup finals and it’s not a nice feeling on the last day of the season.”
While Chelsea are one win away from the Double, Arsenal are desperately trying to end the season on a high after finishing fifth in the Premier League - their lowest finish since Arsene Wenger arrived in north London in 1996.
Arsenal have won the competition twice in the last three seasons but on both occasions they had also sealed Champions League qualification after a top-four finish.
This time lifting the trophy would be a “consolation” in what could still turn out to be Wenger’s last in charge.
“Would it be a nice farewell? No, what I want is to win the next game. It’s not about me, it’s about us winning the trophy and giving everything to achieve it,” Wenger, whose future has clouded much of Arsenal’s season, said on Wednesday.
While Chelsea finished 18 points ahead of Arsenal in the table despite suffering a 3-0 defeat at the Emirates in the early weeks of Conte’s tenure, a one-off final on the wide expanses of Wembley’s lush turf looks hard to call.
Sizzling temperatures are expected on Saturday which could potentially help Arsenal’s creative players, although Wenger is faced with a shortage of defenders with Laurent Koscielny suspended and Gabriel ruled out injured.
Should Arsenal wreck Chelsea’s Double bid it would be Wenger’s seventh FA Cup - matching the number of times Chelsea have lifted the trophy in their history.
”I want to win the cup because I think the team has redressed very well the situation on the sporting side,“ said Wenger, whose side won their last five league games. It would be a good crowning of what we have done in the last two months.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Mark Heinrich