Having spent the best part of a decade chasing an 12th FA Cup victory, Manchester United’s stars certainly did a fine job of nearly trashing this year’s attempt at overcoming the first obstacle. From a goal ahead at West Ham United on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was saved at the last by a strike of such quality it deserved to win the tournament itself.
Little wonder the Scot led the eulogies post-match, both for van Persie’s late late strike, and the man who has transformed United’s season. Indeed, while United leads the Premier League by a healthy seven points there are apparently few at Old Trafford who do not desire another successful trip to Wembley.
Certainly, those supporters traveling to east London seek a return better than United suffered in 2005 and 2007 when Ferguson’s men lost in finals at Cardiff and Wembley.
Yet, for more than half an hour United laboured after falling behind to an unlikely brace of headers by James Collins – a pair of crosses supplied by the returning Joe Cole.
Ferguson’s side, suffering for six changes and more than one player deployed out of position, struggled not only for cohesiveness in attacking areas, but a defensive uncertainty that has become the pattern for the campaign. Twice United failed to cut out delivery from wide areas; twice Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidić lost their man.
Fortunate, then, that van Persie and Giggs should conjure up one of the finest strikes of the season to take these sides back to Old Trafford in 10 days time.
“When you’re 2-1 down with a couple of minutes left you just hope you get a break,” said Sir Alex Ferguson moments after Manchester United’s injury-time equaliser at Upton Park.
“But the manner of goal – the pass from Ryan Giggs and first touch from Robin van Persie and his finish – is absolutely world-class.”
Empty cliche it may be, but Ferguson’s blandishment to a goal made in Cardiff and finished, quite wonderfully, by Rotterdam’s finest, was every bit as “world-class” as it gets. From Giggs’ 50 yard pass, struck deliciously on the half-volley inch perfect into van Persie’s path, to the Dutchman’s sublime control, second touch and low finish past Jussi Jaaskelainen.
Yet, in six short months United fans have come to expect little else from van Persie, who now has 20 goals in 26 appearances this season. The comparison is inconsequential, of course, but by the same stage of the 2007/8 season, in which Cristiano Ronaldo went on to score 42, the Portuguese was a goal short of van Persie’s number.
It is a sign, says Ferguson, of a player who has “brought maturity to our front line.”
Captain Vidić is more effusive still, lionising the Dutchman as an example to all; a player far better than most United fans dared to believe before he arrived at Old Trafford this summer.
“His touch is magnificent and his finishing is top class,” said the Serbian.
“It is movement from the book, touch from the book, goal from the book. It is something they can show to kids, how to move and finish in the last third. He was magnificent for us, we just hope he is going to be in the same form in the end.”
The real surprise, however, is Giggs’ contribution, not just to van Persie’s goal, but over the extended festive period. A late Indian summer, perhaps, but a glorious one even if performances against Swansea City, Newcastle United, Wigan Athletic and now West Ham turn out to be the Welshman’s last hurrah in a United shirt.
But the real goal secured in United’s draw at Upton Park was not van Persie’s masterpiece per se, but a home draw with Fulham or Blackpool in round four – another shot at Wembley in the late spring.
“We want to stay in the competition and have a go at winning it,” Sir Alex told MUTV.
“We’ve had some terrible draws over the years and been knocked out early, we don’t enjoy that. For us to be losing 2-1 in that game was amazing given the chances we created and the football we played.
“But when you play West Ham you have got to defend your crosses from the set pieces because they are brilliant and the best team in the league at that, but we didn’t do it. When Ryan Giggs headed over the bar, Danny Welbeck hit another over, Tom Cleverley hit one more over and then Shinji Kagawa had one blocked near the line, I thought it wasn’t going to be our day.”
But it was, just about, and the sides will meet again in Manchester on 16 January, in what is now becoming a hugely crowded programme leading up to the Reds’ Champions League fixture with Real Madrid next month. Few in Ferguson’s camp are complaining though, not least the manager whose wild celebration at van Persie’s goal belies an enduring passion for the cup.
Sam Allardyce, who has not always enjoyed a positive relationship with West Ham supporters, declared himself “more than disappointed,” with the result. “We almost feel like we lost in that dressing room.”
That is the nature of conceding late, but the Hammers could hardly have done any more on the day.
After all, as Allardyce put it succinctly – “the finish was just unbelievable.” As the Centenary Stand erupted a little past the 90th minute, thousands of United supporters rose to concur.