Big Weekend: Liverpool v Chelsea in the FA Cup final, Leeds, Lampard, Rice, EFL play-offs

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Declan Rice faces Kevin De Bruyne this weekend, while Liverpool play Chelsea in the FA Cup final and Jesse Marsch leads Leeds against Brighton. Credit: PA Images
Declan Rice faces Kevin De Bruyne this weekend, while Liverpool play Chelsea in the FA Cup final and Jesse Marsch leads Leeds against Brighton. Credit: PA Images

It’s the biggest weekend of the year in the FA Cup with Liverpool facing Chelsea at Wembley, while the games imploding Leeds have been waiting for have finally arrived…

Game to watch – The FA Cup final
The occasion doesn’t enjoy the reverence it once did, but Saturday’s FA Cup final should still be a doozy.

Talk of Quadruples and Trebles has been muted somewhat by Manchester City’s relentless brilliance, but Liverpool remain on course to pick up three pots, with this their second visit to Wembley before a trip to Paris at the end of the month. And City might yet blow up in their remaining two games

Victory for the Reds would complete the set for Jurgen Klopp, even if all four at once looks unlikely. “I absolutely love this competition,” said Klopp in his Wembley programme notes, who admits his record so far in the FA Cup “has not been a reason for big parties”.

It’s been a decade since Liverpool have been in a final and not since Steven Gerrard’s heroics in 2006 have Liverpool lifted the FA Cup. Back then, Chelsea had won it three times compared to Liverpool’s seven. Now, after five subsequent triumphs for the Blues, the Reds are playing catch-up.

For Chelsea, the FA Cup represents an opportunity to take something tangible from a very strange season indeed. With no need for rotation, we get to see what Thomas Tuchel believes to be his best XI, or at least the best XI to beat Liverpool.

For the Chelsea boss, there are decisions to be made throughout his team. Eduoard Mendy or Kepa? Probably Mendy. Should the out-of-form, big-game-player Cesar Azpilicueta keep his place? Who in midfield if not the crocked Mateo Kovacic? And should Romelu Lukaku lead the line after his mini-revival in form?

Lukaku caused Liverpool problems in the Carabao Cup final, one of three draws between these two sides this season. All the signs point to this meeting being just as close as the others.

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Team to watch – Leeds
The three defeats to Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea didn’t really count in the minds of Leeds fans. Those were games they expected to lose, even if the manner of them still prompted further pessimism in West Yorkshire. On Sunday comes the first of two games Leeds have been pinning all their hopes on for survival.

Prior to the visit of Brighton, Jesse Marsch’s men have given their supporters few reasons to believe. What could have gone wrong in recent weeks pretty much has. In some instances, like injuries to Stuart Dallas and Liam Cooper, they can rue their misfortune. Sloppy mistakes, like Illan Meslier’s at the Emirates, can happen to anyone. But facing Arsenal and Chelsea with 10 men was a mess entirely of their own making.

Dan James was indisciplined; Luke Ayling was ‘idiotic’. When the captain is committing such acts of self-sabotage, it is hard to make a case for Leeds surviving. Marsch can quote Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Muhammed Ali however much he likes – while his men appear determined to shoot themselves in both feet, he appears more David Brent than Vince Lombardi or even just a manager who might save Leeds.

Ayling and James will miss the visit of Brighton who, inconveniently for Leeds, have been playing with the kind of freedom Marsch and his men can only dream of right now. Marsch has remained loyal and uber-positive – outwardly at least – but he, like everyone else, needs from the Leeds players a reason to believe, or at least one to care when they go into the final weekend.

Leeds are going to need more than Gandhi quotes and fouling to get out of this

Manager to watch – Frank Lampard
In contrast to Marsch, Lampard, albeit belatedly, seems to be getting a tune out of his Everton players.

After it appeared the Toffees had forgotten how to win or play football, Lampard’s men have taken seven points from their last nine, and 10 points from 15, while losing only one of their last six games – that defeat came in the Merseyside derby at Anfield. Their away-day hoo-doo was ended last weekend at Leicester, and though a point at Watford was two fewer than they wanted but no more than they deserved, they return this weekend to Goodison Park where their form all season has been distinctly mid-table.

There they will welcome Brentford, who actually are mid-table and, similar to Brighton, are enjoying the end-of-term freedom that their season’s work has afforded them. Despite their recent run, the pressure remains on Everton after they missed an opportunity to relieve some of it by allowing the already-relegated Hornets a first home point since November.

The failure to beat Roy Hodgson’s Championship-bound side owed much to a lack of quality going forward, with Lampard reluctant to lose the solid base a back five has given the Toffees. Does the Everton boss go with the same against against the Bees, or change the system in the pursuit of three points that could make the last week of the season rather less excruciating than it was thought it might be?

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Player to watch – Declan Rice
It’s been a big week for West Ham’s biggest asset. After raging at Europa League officials and accusing them of corruption, Rice has reportedly turned his nose up at a 427-year contract with the Hammers. This weekend, he just has to get to grips with Kevin De Bruyne.

The Manchester City playmaker was unplayable on Wednesday night at Wolves. De Bruyne has turned in some special performances this season, but four goals including a 24-minute, weak-foot hat-trick, exceeded even his ridiculously-high levels.

On Sunday at the London Stadium, the third-best player of the season according to the FWA will be trying to stop the second-best. “I can never imagine putting my name with those types of players,” said Rice after the vote was counted, but Liverpool need to hope the 23-year-old puts the faux-inferiority complex to one side for long enough to shackle City’s talisman.

EFL game to watch – Championship and League Two play-offs
League One had a head-start but this weekend allows the second and fourth tier to catch up with their brown-trouser ties…

The Championship play-off semis kick off on Friday night, when Luton host Huddersfield, before we are treated on Saturday to a rare 3pm live showing of Sheffield United against Forest. As warm-ups for Wembley go, it’s hardly FA Cup final It’s A Knockout, Bruce Forsyth dribbling half the length of the pitch, or Bob Wilson attempting to interview a dog, but it’s all we’ve got.

In their efforts to rejoin the EFL, Stockport have soiled themselves a few times recently, but all the Hatters need on Sunday against Halifax is a point to claim the National League title and its only automatic promotion place. Live coverage from 3pm if Manchester City have won before half-time again in the Premier League’s 2pm offering.

European game to watch – AC Milan v Atalanta
Premier League aside, the only title race still being run among Europe’s big leagues is the one in Milan for the Serie A crown.

Milan are two points clear of Inter going into the penultimate matchday. The Rossoneri could be crowned champions if they beat eighth-placed Atalanta on Sunday evening and Inter don’t at least match their result when they go to relegation-threatened Cagliari straight after.

The roles are reversed this weekend, after Inter went first and briefly topped the table with their thrilling come-from-behind win at Empoli, before Milan also recovered a deficit at Hellas Verona to retake their seat at the summit. Inter enjoyed the confidence boost of winning the Coppa Italia on Wednesday, but it won’t mean much if Milan finish the week with their first Scudetto since 2011.

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