The FA Cup final returns to Wembley on Saturday and gives Chelsea a second chance this season to deny Manchester United a trophy. The Blues need to make this one count after losing their Premier League title to United.
Chelsea finished six points behind United in the league and lost to Liverpool in the Champions League semi-finals. They had a consolation success in the League Cup.
Ashley Cole will miss the final because of an ankle injury. The England left-back will not be risked against the pace of Cristiano Ronaldo and will be replaced by Wayne Bridge, who has played in six of Chelsea’s last eight games and has had an impressive season.
Cole, who also missed the Carling Cup final in February with a knee problem, had delayed surgery to play in the final but has been struggling all week in training. His absence will be a big blow to Chelsea who are already without Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho and Andriy Shevchenko.
Meanwhile, Frank Lampard will have to make one of the biggest decisions of his career if Chelsea fail to increase their contract offer.
The Blues’ final preparations have been hampered by speculation that the club has issued final ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offers to captain John Terry, Frank Lampard and Arjen Robben. Terry and Lampard want pay parity with top earners Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, but Roman Abramovich is understood to have blocked such an increase.
Ballack and Shevchenko are reportedly earning £121,000 a week, while Robben is believed to have been offered a new four-year contract worth £84,000-a-week and has two years left on his current deal.
Terry, who has led Chelsea to the Barclays Premiership title twice in the last three years, is understood to have rejected a deal worth £115,000-a-week along with Lampard.
Lampard could potentially resign from his contract in the 15 days after the FA Cup final. The 28-year-old wants to finish his career at Stamford Bridge but if agreement cannot be reached in the next three weeks, Lampard will weigh-up leaving or running down the final two years of his contract.Jose Mourinho is also sweating on the fitness of Mikel John Obi and Robben for Saturday’s final. Robben is still recovering from knee surgery but hopes to be fit enough for a place on the bench, while Mikel is struggling with a thigh strain which saw him substituted against Everton last Sunday. Mourinho has hinted he could use keeper Hilario as a substitute striker but is more likely to pick Ben Sahar.
Sir Alex Ferguson has three major selection dilemmas as Manchester United look to cement an unprecedented fourth domestic Double.
With Gary Neville (ankle) out, both full-back berths are up for grabs. Wes Brown is favoured to edge out John ’Shea for Neville’s right-sided berth, while Patrice Evra is tipped to start on the left in place of Gabriel Heinze.
Ferguson must also decide whether to pick Alan Smith up front or bolster his midfield with Darren Fletcher. Louis Saha misses his fourth final with a hamstring injury.
Chelsea won the last FA Cup final at the old Wembley in 2000, and a victory in the first at the rebuilt arena would go a long way to securing Mourinho’s job for next season and restoring some much-needed optimism to the west London club.
A sellout 90,000 crowd will fill the rebuilt £800-million stadium to watch only the third final between the teams finishing 1-2 in the top flight of the English league.
The last time the top two teams met in the Cup final was in 1986 when Liverpool played Everton.
If United are looking for omens, red-shirted Liverpool beat blue-clad Everton 3-1 to clinch a League and Cup double. Chelsea, however, can draw comfort from their recent record against United. Mourinho has won five of his 10 matches against United, while United’s Alex Ferguson can claim just a single victory.
The FA Cup is the only English title to have eluded Mourinho in his three years with Chelsea, with successive Premier League titles and two League Cups.