LONDON: The FA Cup final has been restored to its traditional slot as the final game of the English domestic season but only one of today's Cardiff combatants regards it as the pinnacle of the year.
Southampton, with the 1976 FA Cup their only major honour, are desperate for some tangible success to follow their impressive eighth-place league finish under Gordon Strachan.
On the day Arsenal lost the league, Arsene Wenger said retaining the FA Cup would be no consolation for their failure in the Premier and Champions Leagues.
The Frenchman could be excused for wondering what all the fuss is about when he leads his team out for their fourth final in his seven years at Highbury, his third in succession and a record 16th overall.
If Wenger had been around 27 years ago when then-Second Division Southampton produced one the competition’s greatest shocks by beating heavily-fancied Manchester United 1-0 in the final, he might have a little more feel for its romance.
Saints fans, dreaming of a repetition, will pour into Cardiff to revel in every aspect of the final where even defeat assures them of a place in next season’s UEFA Cup.
While Strachan can return to a virtually full-strength side, Wenger is having to patch together his team after the late season injuries and suspension that contributed to their implosion in the league.
The most important absentee is skipper Patrick Vieira, not only for his midfielder dominance but also for the shield he provides for the shaky back line.
With centre-back Sol Campbell suspended, Pascal Cygan injured and Oleg Luzhny and Lauren both doubts, Arsenal might have to rely on Igor Stepanovs and Martin Keown to deal with the aerial threat of James Beattie.
And with several front line players tired and off-colour they will be looking to Thierry Henry for goals.
David Seaman will captain the side in his fifth final appearance and possibly his last for the club.
Beattie, with 24 goals this season, is Southampton’s main threat and having scored twice in his side’s 3-2 league win over Arsenal last November he has nothing to fear.
It is an attitude that Strachan has instilled throughout the team, with under-rated duo Anders Svensson and Chris Marsden its epitome in the middle of midfield.
The likes of Marsden, at his eighth club in his 17th year as a professional and playing with pain-killing injections, striker Brett Ormerod, plying his trade at Division Two Blackpool until two years ago and Scottish one-cap wonder defender Paul Telfer will all give everything they have. – Reuters