The biggest day of the English footballing calendar arrives on Saturday when Chelsea face Leicester City in the 140th FA Cup Final. It may not necessarily carry the same luster as it once did and it was notable that Blues manager Thomas Tuchel described Wednesday's Premier League meeting between these two teams, fourth and third in the Premier League respectively, as akin to another final. Still, for both fanbases and squads, victory at Wembley Stadium would be cause for jubilation and would crown impressive seasons for the two clubs.
Let's make some predictions:
Vardy gets his groove back
For all the success his team has enjoyed, it has been a frustrating season for Jamie Vardy, at least by the lofty standards he sets himself. With two games remaining in the Premier League campaign, he is on course for his first year without hitting double figures for open play goals since he and Leicester City initially arrived in the Premier League.
A healthy tally of six penalties has buoyed him up the Golden Boot rankings, but they make up nearly half of his 13 goals in the top flight this season. Since Christmas he has found the net only twice from open play in the Premier League and that has threatened to be the tale of his season. At 34 there is already a sense that the goal scoring mantle may be passing from Vardy to Kelechi Iheanacho, who has been one of the better attackers in the English game this year.
And yet, there are other sides to the Vardy story this season, ones that suggest it might be a while yet before his efficacy dulls. While he has struggled to find the net as consistently he has had his best Premier League season in terms of assists with nine to his name, joint-sixth with Marcus Rashford in a ranking of the league's best providers. Three of those have come for Iheanacho as well as another in the FA Cup semifinal win over Southampton.
Vardy still has the pace to drag defenders out of positions but where in previous years he might have then taken off on a solo dart towards goal he is now increasingly drifting into the channels and firing low crosses towards his teammates at the back post, as he did twice in a 5-0 rollicking of Sheffield United in March. Little wonder Iheanacho describes his fellow forward as "the best partner you could want as a striker".
So why not predict an assist instead for Vardy? In part because though his raw output has fallen he is still not far from the striker he has been in previous years when he has occupied one of the top positions in the goal scoring charts. Per 90 Premier League minutes this season his non-penalty expected goals (xG, a statistical measure of the likelihood that any shot results in a goal) tally is 0.42, only slightly lower than in the previous two seasons and higher than the 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns, where his goal return away from the spot was double what it is now. He is still getting into the spots he once did and that is as good an indicator of goals to come as any.
However, the most important reason to back Vardy to score at Wembley is because this is a major moment in Leicester's history. It is rare indeed for those to pass by without their No.9 putting the ball in the net. In four games for his club side at Wembley he has scored four goals and had as many in six England caps at the national stadium. His clutch status for Leicester is indisputable, a simple glance at his most frequent Premier League victims (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City) reflects that. Curiously it is not the same against Chelsea but the two he has scored against the Blues have both been decisive in Leicester wins. Whether he can do some for a third time is doubtful but it is still hard to imagine this game just passing Vardy by.
Chelsea's scoring touch returns
Wednesday's defeat to Arsenal felt like something of a shot across Chelsea's bow, a reminder that for all their defensive prowess one slip can be costly indeed for a low-scoring team in a low-scoring sport like Thomas Tuchel's side are. After Jorginho's catastrophic error forced Kepa Arrizabalaga to paw the ball off his goal line and into Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's pass the Blues huffed and puffed but they could not quite break down the Gunners nervy defense.
It was the third time in a month that opponents held Chelsea goalless, Bernd Leno joining Brighton and Porto's goalkeepers in having a clean sheet to his name after meeting the Champions League finalists. However, that does not mean that Tuchel's attack is faltering. Indeed if anything it has been taking significant strides in recent weeks.
Since the stunning 5-2 loss at home to West Bromwich Albion, a match where Tuchel was as frustrated with his player's inability to finish chances as he was Thiago Silva's red card, there has been a notable upswing in the attacking punch Chelsea have offered to opponents. Having averaged 1.23 goals per Premier League or Champions League game up to and including the West Brom loss they have reached 1.4 per game since.
Their xG per game has gone up even more significantly, rising by a third from 1.49 to 1.97. Intriguingly this has not been because Chelsea are taking more shots, quite the opposite as they have had two fewer with just 12.7 per game. They are just far better efforts, no great surprise when their manager is the sort who does not attempt to hide his love of advanced analytics from a sometimes dismissive media.
Chelsea have become increasingly effective at getting to the best goal scoring spots on the pitch, inside the penalty area and near the width of the goalposts. Before that loss to West Brom less than two-thirds of the Blues' shots were in the box, now that proportion is 72.4 percent. Unsurprisingly that means more shots hitting the target and a goal conversion rate that has gone from 8.3 percent to 11 percent.
That they did not do so as frequently against Arsenal is perhaps just a reflection of the absence of key creative players such as Mason Mount, Timo Werner and for much of the game Christian Pulisic. It is reasonable to assume some, if not all, of them were held in reserve for the final. Add them and the returning Mateo Kovacic -- who attempts more take-ons per 90 than any player other than Pulisic under Tuchel -- and Chelsea should have their attacking punch back.
Kepa dodges Wembley spotlight
He may not keep a clean sheet -- see the above prediction about Vardy -- but don't expect Kepa to dominate the post-match headlines quite as he has the pre-match. The Spaniard is a natural talking point, still the most expensive goalkeeper in the sport's history but clearly Chelsea's number two behind Edouard Mendy. He's a player the Blues pushed desperately to sell in the summer only to find themselves unable to move, a player who is still tied to the club for more than half of the seven-year contract he signed in 2018.
He also finds himself back at Wembley for a cup final after his infamous mutiny against Maurizio Sarri in the 2019 EFL Cup Final when Kepa simply refused to be substituted ahead of a penalty shootout where he would let Sergio Aguero's spot kick bundle its way under him.
Then there is just the small matter of last season, when the $100million man put together one of the worst portfolios of performances by a goalkeeper in the top flight's recent history. In the 2019/20 Premier League he saved just 53 percent of shots on his goal and the more advanced the metric the more woeful his performances looked. Since Opta began tracking goals prevented (a metric which substitutes the number of goals conceded by a keeper from the xG value of shots on target) in August 2018 no shot-stopper in England has performed worse than Kepa, who has prevented -12.79 goals. In other words with a league average goalkeeper between the posts Chelsea would have let in around 13 goals fewer than they did with their No.1.
That is almost all down to his disastrous campaign under Frank Lampard, one where you sensed a player in a cycle of self doubt and fear that was perpetuated by a manager who understandably did not fancy the goalkeeper he had and a media that seized on even the slightest of errors. What was perhaps not clear until Tuchel's appointment was just how much those in front of him were making life more difficult for Kepa, under new management Mendy faces around 2.3 shots per 90 while his back-up faced 3.4 under Maurizio Sarri and Lampard.
Kepa may not be quite as good a shot-stopper as Mendy but it is worth noting that of late he has at the very least looked like a perfectly adequate goalkeeper. Arsenal's winner came through no fault of him, indeed one might argue he showed impressive sprightliness to paw the ball off the line even if it would have earned him a yellow card and handed the opposition an indirect free-kick on the six yard line. Across the relatively small sample size of six Premier League games Kepa has performed about on par with 0.03 goals prevented, i.e. the seven gaols he has conceded are almost exactly what an average player in his position would.
He also performed credibly in the FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester City with two saves, the second from Rodri the sort of low effort through a hive of bodies that might have evaded him earlier in his Chelsea career. At the risk of setting Kepa up for an almighty fall on one of the biggest stages in English sport, recent evidence would suggest he will be just about fine.