It has been a decade in the waiting, but the FA Cup might just be important to Manchester United once again – for the season at least. The club last secured the famous old trophy on 22 May 2004 when Sir Alex Ferguson’s side beat Millwall at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. In the intervening years the Reds have made just two further cup finals, losing in 2005 to Arsenal and then Chelsea in 2007. It has, in truth, been a pitiful decade in the cup.
What then of United’s approach to a third round tie with Swansea City this weekend? Manager David Moyes is keen both to freshen up his side ahead of a lengthy January fixture schedule and secure his first trophy as United’s manager. Indeed, his first trophy at any club, anywhere. The two may not align.
But while the cup might normally be low of the list of United’s priorities it has taken on new meaning in a season where Moyes’ side has already lost on six occasions in the Premier League. With Europe’s finest – Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid – favourites to take the Champions League in May, the FA Cup might just represent United’s best chance of silverware this season.
It hasn’t always been that way; Ferguson didn’t always take the cup seriously. Not even close. In truth, the world’s oldest football tournament has normally pitched up third in the list of Ferguson’s goals, while it lies somewhere behind securing new sponsors in far off lands in a very long list of club priorities.
That pattern may not initially change under Moyes, especially if a Champions League spot remains in the balance, although the Scot at least talked a good game this week. Moyes claims that not only is the FA Cup a priority, but that United is focused on winning the tournament for the first time in a decade.
“The cup is important to me, it always has been,” said the Scot on Friday.
“I’m sure it’s important to every club. The longer you stay in the competition the more important it becomes. For most of the Premier League clubs, this is just the start of it. At this moment in time, a lot of Premier League games have been played and it’s a difficult time.
“I’m sure there is because if you’re a club like Manchester United you want to be involved in all the trophy-winning opportunities, and to not win the FA Cup for 10 years is something that’s a bit of a surprise. But it’s something we’ll try to do – we’re trying to win all the competitions. As far as I am concerned, we’ll do everything we possibly can to try to get through.”
Still, United will rotate for the Sunday afternoon clash, with Moyes keen to freshen up a side that suffered demoralising defeat to Spurs on New Year’s Day, and with a Capital One Cup semi-final with Sunderland to come next Tuesday.
Changes also come with the squad still carrying a number of injuries. Wayne Rooney is sidelined having featured against Spurs, while Robin van Persie is unlikely to be fully fit before next weekend’s Premier League match with Swansea. Rooney missed United’s victory at Norwich with a groin problem, returning early – too early it seems – for the New Year’s Day loss to Tottenham. It is not the first time Moyes has taken that risk this season.
Meanwhile, winger Ashley Young is out with a shoulder problem suffered in last week’s controversial clash with Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
“We’ve got a few injuries and one is [from] the challenge the keeper made on Ashley Young,” claimed Moyes.
“It’s a shoulder injury and we’re not sure exactly how long he’s going to be out yet. We’ve got some other injuries as well that we’ll just need to look at and see how they are over the next few days. Wayne has got a groin injury and won’t be available on Sunday. Robin’s coming on but we’ll let you know when he’s ready.
“We definitely will [rotate] because of the two games. It’s the same for both clubs so there can’t be many complaints but I don’t think it’s right to be asking footballers to play on Sunday and then Tuesday. They did it over Christmas and I totally understand that and the reasons why. But it’s a bit harder to accept at such short notice here.”
The visitors arrive in Manchester with Pablo Hernandez out after the winger sustained a hamstring injury last weekend, while Leon Britton, Michu, Michel Vorm and Nathan Dyer remain on the sidelines.
Injuries are the last thing manager Michael Laudrup needs in an increasingly difficult season for the Swans, although the Dane is still likely to make changes at Old Trafford with the priority remaining Premier League survival.
Swansea lie just three points ahead of the relegation zone having previously impressed in two seasons in the Premier League since promotion in 2011. The cup is both a distraction and a potential route to further glory for the side that won last season’s Capital One Cup.
“We are playing at Old Trafford against Man United, so we want to do as well as we can, even though it will be very difficult,” said Laudrup.
“Yes, we may make changes, especially now because we have 18 players – some of which have played a lot of games. But just because we make changes, doesn’t mean we don’t care about the competition. I think I already proved that last year.”
“For me, the cups are always something special, but I have also always said that the Premier League is like the daily bread – the most important thing – and of course that is our first priority. It has always been that way, not just this year. It was last year, the year before that and it will be next year.”
It is a similar question facing Laudrup’s opposite number of course: to field a strong side and aim for Wembley in May, or rotate to focus on other concerns. After all, while Moyes will use his full squad this season it is not because the Reds are realistically chasing silverware on four fronts. For once, the domestic cups might just be a priority.
Manchester United v Swansea City, FA Cup, Old Trafford, 4.30pm, 5 January 2014
United (4-4-2): De Gea; Smalling, Evans, Ferdinand, Buttner; Valencia, Fletcher, Cleverley, Kagawa; Hernández, Welbeck. Subs from: Lindegaard, Fabio, Evra, Vidić, Carrick, Zaha, Anderson, Giggs, Januzaj
Swansea (4-3-3): Tremmel; Rangel, Chico Flores, Williams, Davies; Cañas, Shelvey, Lamah; Routledge, Bony, De Guzmán. Subs from: Amat, Taylor, Tiendalli, Britton, Pozuelo, Cornell, Alvaro, Vazquez, Zabret
United 10 Draw 5 Swansea 6
Officials (all Serbian)
Referee: Michael Dean
Assistant Referees: Darren Cann and Stuart Burt
Fourth Official: Jonathan Moss