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May 16, 2014

50-50 Challenge: Arsenal versus Hull City

The FA Cup Final is upon us and Arsenal fans across the world are rubbing their eyes in disbelief. They're about to win a trophy. Yes! A trophy!

We all know about Arsenal's nine-year trophy drought but try being a Hull City fan -- they're hoping to win the first major trophy in their history. Something has to give, though, ahead of the FA Cup final this weekend. Arsenal seem pretty confident of victory if a scheduled parade is anything to go by -- we're sure Steve Bruce and Hull City will have something to say about that.

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Our ESPN experts take each other on ahead of the big one at Wembley: ESPN FC assistant editor James Dall is a lifelong Arsenal supporter while Phil Buckingham writes for the Hull Daily Mail. Here's what they have to say about the game:

Match memories

Dall: This season's Premier League meetings between the two clubs were relatively straightforward affairs for Arsenal, winning 2-0 in December's home match and then 3-0 at the KC Stadium last month, the match-ups coming before and after the Gunners' slump in form. Even Nicklas Bendtner scored against the Tigers, which provides some optimism. In fact, Bendtner defeated Hull back in 2010 when he netted in injury-time versus 10 men. Such a nail-biting finale would prefer to be avoided this time around.

Arsenal and Hull met in the FA Cup during the 2008-09 campaign with Arsene Wenger defeating then-manager Phil Brown courtesy of two late goals, of which William Gallas' effort was contentious, to book their first trip to the new Wembley. Four of that starting XI five years ago could feature this Saturday: Lukasz Fabianski, Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs and Abou Diaby, subject to fitness and selection. Of that quartet, it is expected to be loyal Sagna's last game after seven years at the club. It would be fitting if the right-back had some say in the outcome of the final.

Buckingham: One win in 99 years means its slim pickings in the search for inspiration this weekend. The exception to a depressing rule came at the Emirates in September 2008. A stunner from Geovanni and a Daniel Cousin header provided a 2-1 win that announced City's arrival in the Premier League in style. It's never quite been the same since, though. Six consecutive defeats and counting, including a loss at the KC Stadium in March 2010 that led to the sacking of Phil Brown. Arsenal did the Premier League double over City this season with 2-0 and 3-0 wins but who cares? Manchester City had done the same against Wigan 12 months ago and look what happened there.

The rivalry

Dall: Former Hull manager Brown questioning Cesc Fabregas' attire is a memory that never fails to evoke a chortle. After the final whistle of the aforementioned FA Cup sixth round tie in 2009, the now-sold Fabregas came onto the field of play having missed the match through injury. With Gallas' winner allowed to stand despite appeals for offside, the atmosphere was spiky among the opponents. And Fabregas was in the thick of the confrontation, as Brown accused the Spaniard of spitting at Hull's assistant manager, Brian Horton.

But Brown's woes did not stop there, nor at a grumbling at a lack of a handshake between he and Wenger. No, Brown took umbrage with Fabregas' wearing jeans and a black, hooded jacket. His complaint was thus: "Being dressed in the manner in which he was dressed." Fabregas and the ex-Tigers boss were ultimately charged with improper conduct by the Football Association. Alas, compared to Brown, the Steve Bruce's joviality means touchline tensions will unlikely be an issue this weekend.

Buckingham: These two clubs have not met each other much but there's still been time for a few spicy dust-ups. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the FA Cup quarterfinal of 2009. A travesty of a night. As if losing to William Gallas' offside goal five minutes from the end was not enough, Cesc Fabregas saw fit to goad his opponents in a style typically seen on a Sunday League pitch. Allegations of the Arsenal captain then spitting at City's assistant boss Brian Horton only served to ramp up the hostilities.

Arsenal might not remember that night vividly but the travelling supporters have not forgotten. In truth, there's not much to say about City and Arsenal. They've been strangers living at the opposite ends of the English game. That's probably for the best, though. If you were going to have your house burgled, it's best not to know the person making off with your loot.

Fear factor

Dall: Arsenal's greatest enemies at Wembley might be themselves. So much is riding on this final, as they look to add to their trophy cabinet for the first time since 2005 -- when they beat Manchester United on penalties. With expectation comes pressure, and the Gunners faithful will worry about how the players can cope. The wounds left from 2011's League Cup final loss to Birmingham are still raw, hence the onus is on Wenger to ensure their psychological state is fine-tuned.

As for Hull, that they will be missing the ineligible striking duo of Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic is a boost, while Hull's poor end to the season -- four losses in their last five matches -- offers hope that the momentum is with Arsenal. That said, complacency is the devil, while in the likes of Tom Huddlestone, Hull have quality that can punish a lapse.

Buckingham: There's a few who will cause Steve Bruce a sleepless night on Friday but the greatest concern has to be Aaron Ramsey. He's been exceptional in both of the Premier League games this season, finding that little bit of quality when Arsenal have needed it. City aren't usually the easiest team to break down.

The discipline and collective industry make them a rotten opponent but Ramsey has shown a knack of popping up in-between the lines. The opening goal in Arsenal's 3-0 win at the KC Stadium last month was a peach -- Bruce has to stop that. Whether that's with a three-man defence or a holding midfielder, Arsenal and Ramsey cannot be allowed to have their way. Give him a quiet evening and City will have a chance. Then there's the small matter of Mesut Ozil.

X Factor

Dall: Aaron Ramsey's return to fitness and form is a major result for the Gunners. With him, they are a different team. In basic terms, the Wales international's haul of 15 goals from midfield is a stunning return considering he missed a large chunk of the campaign through injury. Beyond that, though, his energy drives the team on, offering a dynamism severely lacking in his absence. His runs from deep into the box are essential, while his willingness to pass forwards rather than sideways accentuate what an asset he has been to the team, and hopefully will continue to be at Wembley.

Buckingham: You're not going to win a FA Cup final without a bit of magic and City's man for the big occasion is Tom Huddlestone. Remember him, Arsenal? That mercurial midfielder once of Tottenham? Well he's the man that could well be your nemesis all over again. If Huddlestone performs, so do City. He's the metronome in the middle of the park; the talented conductor. His midfield pals Jake Livermore (another Spurs man) and David Meyler do much of his running for him but Huddlestone's the one who can carve teams open.

It might only have been Sheffield United but look at his goal in the semifinal for a reminder of his ability. After swapping passes, steadying himself and holding off the defender, the finish was worth the entry fee to Wembley. It won't be a one-man band, though. Curtis Davies, the inspirational centre back, and Allan McGregor, the dependable goalkeeper, are going to need big performances.

Prediction

Dall: Arsenal go into this match having won their last five matches in a row, and each of those successes was achieved with relative ease, their fans not put through the wringer. It feels unlikely, though, that a nerve-free match will be enjoyed on Saturday. Prior to that five-game streak, the Gunners' played out a painful 120 minutes and penalties versus Wigan to reach the showpiece. More pulling out of hair is expected, but so is a victory. Wenger and his players know how what silverware will mean, and I am backing them to lift it. The means, however, might not be pretty. Though Arsenal fans will not care a jot about that.

Buckingham: It'll be tight -- a lot tighter than most would imagine. You only have to look at City's record over the course of the season; they don't get the run-around often. That's what Bruce will be preaching to his underdogs. Stay in the game as long as possible and let the demons join Arsenal late in the game. Wigan did a number on the Gunners in the semifinal so there's no reason City can't do the same. Providing the game is level by the hour mark I genuinely believe they can pinch it. There might not be any pressure on City but there's no shortage of belief. Here's to a heroic 1-0 win and the first piece of silverware in the club's 110-year history.