In years gone by the build up to the FA Cup final would centre on the teams involved. The occasion and the prize on offer mean far more than the future of any manager. But, then, this hasn’t been any old season. Manchester United heads into the FA Cup final against Crystal Palace looking for the club’s first piece of major silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Three long years. While reaching the cup final is to be celebrated, there will be relief painted across United supporters’ faces come full-time on Saturday. The curtain will surely come down on Louis van Gaal’s era at Old Trafford.
Over the years Manchester United has entered spring chasing a league title, a domestic cup or European glory. Days out to Wembley were common, as was the tension as the Reds sought to tie up yet another title. Spring has not been so kind in recent years, though, with United having little to shout about since the spring of 2013 when the Reds wrapped up a record-breaking 20th league title on a late April night. Yet, on Saturday, United’s supporters will find themselves walking down Wembley Way once again, with the hope of FA Cup glory firmly on the mind.
“The challenge was bigger for me at Manchester United. I am sorry for Tottenham, but Manchester United are a bigger club.”
Louis van Gaal doesn’t regret choosing United over Spurs despite his side’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Sunday. Van Gaal may not regret choosing United, but United fans are certainly ruing his decision. There us little doubt Spurs supporters must have chuckled at the suggestion Van Gaal is “sorry” that the London club missed out on the ‘genius’ veteran manager.
Seven games to go. Seven games in which Louis van Gaal could save his job and Manchester United’s season; more should the Reds beat West Ham United at Upton Park in 10 days to progress in the FA Cup. It is a little over half-a-dozen games that will define not only a season, but shape the club’s immediate future. Rant knows the outcome. Well, sort of…
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Up for the cup? Manchester United’s FA Cup record in recent years suggests anything but. Now more than a decade since the club’s last victory in the world’s oldest tournament, manager Louis van Gaal says other priorities take precedent once again. Plus ça change each season for the past decade and more. Typically league and European titles take precedent; this time, with United in a five-way race for Champions League qualification, the Dutchman is insistent that the real prize is achieving fourth place in the Premier League.
The logic is sound, of course, as United simply cannot fail in pursuit of European football after missing out during David Moyes’ ill-fated reign. Not that, with just 10 games left in the league competition, the Reds’ schedule is packed and the players warrant a rest. In that the choice of cup glory and European qualification is far from mutually exclusive, although Van Gaal’s selection for Monday night’s fixture will say much for how the Dutchman is able to balance his priorities.
Still, this fixture stands for much even if it far from the first choice priority for United or Arsenal this season. This is, after all, the seventh time these clubs have met in the FA Cup since Arsene Wenger took charge of the Gunners in 1996 – and the 14th cup fixture between these sides overall.
There have been some modern classics too: United’s extra-time victory in the 1999 semi-final replay with that Ryan Giggs goal; Arsenal’s ill-deserved penalty shoot-out final win six years later; and United’s infamous 2-0 win at Old Trafford in 2011 in which Sir Alex Ferguson fielded seven defenders. The 2015 vintage may not match others for importance, but history says that drama is just as likely.
Still, with United facing a difficult March and April fixture list Van Gaal must find the balance between retaining fresh minds and bodies, and developing a sense of momentum that is so important as the season enters its final straight.
“Every match is just as important as the next, and every result can influence the next,” said Van Gaal on Friday.
“We are in a rat race in the Premier League and the Arsenal game is separate from that, but if we do well we would take the good feeling and confidence into our next games. Everywhere I have been I have always managed to win something in my first season, but the most important thing is the goal we have set, and that is the top four. If we do not achieve that we have failed.
“United and Arsenal are placed third and fourth in the league, so it’s almost like a final, I think. I think if we beat them it is a big blow for them, but if they beat us it is a big blow for us. It is very important game, not only for the FA Cup but also for the rat race.”
Van Gaal is fortunate to enjoy a largely fit squad, although striker Robin van Persie is again absent with an ankle injury. In the Dutchman’s stead misfiring Radamel Falcao should start.
Meanwhile, Jonny Evans begins the first of a six match suspension for allegedly spitting at Newcastle United’s Papiss Cissé last week. Luke Shaw could also miss out with injury, prompting United’s manager to deploy the 3-5-2 system that has only intermittently worked this season. In the young defender’s absence in-form winger Ashley Young could revert to left-wing-back.
Whatever the selection it remains unlikely United will be able capitalise on the strategy that has brought 11 victories from the past 15 matches against Arsenal: to outmuscle the north Londoners in midfield and seek opportunities to break at speed. After all, United’s lack of a combative midfielder and pace up front has characterised much of the season.
Meanwhile, the visitors are without new signing Gabriel Paulista who has a hamstring problem, although Wojciech Szczesny and Nacho Monreal return for the Gunners.
Wenger’s side has enjoyed victories over Everton and Queens Park Rangers since Monaco humiliated the north London side in the Champions League a fortnight ago. It represents a rapid return to form for a side that has secured eight victories from the past 10 league matches – and overtaken United in the race for European football in the process.
Despite the “rat race” for European places Wenger has much sympathy for his opposite number, with Van Gaal suffering an increasingly hostile media atmosphere during United’s inconsistent campaign.
“It’s like that,” said Wenger this week. “The rule is everyday you have to criticise somebody or you don’t sleep well overnight. Because we are in a public job, we have to accept that. It’s important you know well the players you have, and I believe that United are in construction, because they got many new players this year.”
Arsenal’s victory in the FA Cup last season represented the Frenchman’s first trophy in the decade since that 2005 final against United. Brief respite from circling critics. With Van Persie out of Monday’s tie Wayne Rooney is the sole survivor from a match that was decided on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes.
“We have an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal on Monday and that is massive for us,” Rooney told ManUtd.com. “We haven’t been to a final for a few years, we want to try to win that game. It is a massive trophy. It is a trophy that, growing up as a youngster, I used to love watching and I was fortunate enough to see Everton lift the FA Cup in 1995 when I was nine years old. It is something which I would love to do.”
In historical terms the past decade is lean, with the clubs participating in 36 finals between them and winning 11 FA Cups each over the past 150 years. Not that United’s recent record against the north Londonders is poor: the Reds have not conceded in the past four cup games against Arsenal, while United has lost just once in the past 15 matches against Wenger’s side.
Van Gaal, meanwhile, hopes that his side stretches that record to 16. He just wants Champions League qualification a little bit more.
United (3-4-3): De Gea; Jones, Smalling, Rojo; Valencia, Blind, Herrera, Young; Rooney, Falcao, Di Maria
Arsenal (4-3-3): Szczesny; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla; Özil, Giroud, Sánchez
United: Valdes, Lindegaard, Rafael, McNair, James, Fellaini, Blackett, Januzaj, Wilson
Arsenal: Ospina, Monreal, Rosicky, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chambers, Martinez, Welbeck
United 93 – Draw 48 – Arsenal 78
Referee: Michael Oliver
Assistant Referees: Jake Collin & Gary Beswick
Fourth Official: Craig Pawson
United 2-1 Arsenal
£1 bet club
Wayne Rooney to score the winning goal @ 5/1
Running total: £0.50 up!
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It is far from the narrative that Louis van Gaal seeks: criticism from supporters, pundits and ex-Manchester United players about his team’s style as well as its substance. After all, the Dutchman has guided United to just one defeat in the past 18 matches – a record that, had it not included eight draws, might have United challenging for the Premier League title. As is it, United remains locked in a five-way battle for European football next season – and Van Gaal is increasingly on the defensive.
Respite, albeit brief, comes in the FA Cup, with United facing a lower division club for the third successive round. Van Gaal’s side struggled to beat Yeovil Town and Cambridge United in earlier rounds, with Preston North End no more likely to provide a walkover this time around. Supporters expect victory on Monday night, of course, but whether the Dutchman is able to bring a degree of cohesion to an attacking unit that has been largely sterile during that 18-match run remains a key question.
The accusation that Van Gaal has developed a ‘long ball game’ came at West Ham United, where Sam Allardyce drew a bizarre and unnecessary reaction from the Dutchman in the wake of United’s last-gasp draw in east London last weekend. That performance also brought a stinging rebuke from former United midfielder Paul Scholes.
“United’s history was built on attacking football, which does not always mean that the team kept clean sheets or did not concede chances,” said the player who appeared on 718 occasions for United. “Why do you think United have had some of the best goalkeepers in the world over the years? They needed them because the team committed so many players forward. At the moment I’m struggling to watch Van Gaal’s team with any great enjoyment.”
It was perhaps worse at home to Burnley in midweek, where United won but the visitors deserved so much more for a vibrant attacking performance that was in stark contrast to United’s recent approach. Then, amid the sterility, there is anything but tactical cohesion. Eight months into the job, Van Gaal is seemingly far from finding the balance that his philosophy demands.
“I have played five or six systems and I am looking still for the balance,” admitted the former Barcelona manager this week, who has switched to a 4-4-2 diamond in recent weeks.
“This system is more attractive than normally and I can play with more attacking players. In spite of the fact that we are looking for the balance, our results are not bad and our defensive organisation is not bad. So, I cannot say that I am very disappointed about that.”
Preston offers Van Gaal’s men the chance to progress in the only tournament United stands a realistic chance of claiming. Perhaps equally important, in the current atmosphere, is for the Dutchman’s side to put on a real show. Not that Van Gaal is tempted to talk up the chances of an open, attacking game.
“It’s always the same because you know the world is for the underdog and we have to play away under the same circumstances as at Cambridge or Yeovil,” said Van Gaal.
“You know that they play more or less with two rows of four and a striker who is dropping in, as did Cambridge and Yeovil and also for example Queens Park Rangers and Burnley. It is always difficult to play against a defending team.
On the pitch Van Gaal is unlikely to risk Phil Jones, who departed after only a few minutes against Burnley. Daley Blind could be involved, but Michael Carrick has suffered a setback in his rehabilitation is will not be available. If Blind does not feature hen Wayne Rooney could continue in a more defensive role. The Scouser finished United’s victory over Burnley sitting in front of the back four.
Van Gaal reserved praise for second-half substitute Ander Herrera, who again brought balance and energy to United’s midfield, although there is no guarantee that the Basque will feature. United’s manager has normally prefer Rooney, Juan Mata and, recently, Adnan Januzaj in deeper roles this season.
Meanwhile, Preston manager Simon Grayson, is without cup-tied Daniel Johnson while goalkeeper Sam Johnstone cannot play against his parent club. Thorsten Stuckmann takes over in goal, with Calum Woods and Callum Robinson also in the match-day squad. However, former Leeds United striker Jermaine Beckford, who scored in the FA Cup at Old Trafford in 2010, is out injured.
Preston has enjoyed a positive season under Grayson, with the Lilywhites chasing promotion to the Championship. With 16 games remaining Grayson’s side is within four points of automatic promotion after missing out in last season’s play-offs.
“We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain, and that is what we’ll do,” said Grayson of United’s visit on Monday night.
“We’ll go and enjoy playing against some of the best players in the world – fantastic atmosphere, massive profile for the football club and a tie we’re looking forward to and should enjoy. We’ll do ourselves justice, but what we’ve done is focus on the last two league games and getting results and performances.”
That freedom seemingly liberated both Cambridge and Yeovil in previous rounds. Or, in contrast, inhibited United’s performance. It took the late entry of Angel Di Maria at Yeovil to secure victory, while Cambridge enjoyed a huge payday in embarrassing United at the Abbey Stadium to earn a replay. For Van Gaal it remains a difficult task no matter how many places between the sides on Monday.
“You know the world is against you, the environment is against you because everyone is with the underdog,” said Van Gaal. “It is difficult to accept but it’s like that. But the chance that you can survive is higher because you are playing against lower qualities. But you have to beat the team with better motivation and in the atmosphere where everyone is against you.”
Fail at Preston and Van Gaal may find more of his own on the turn – not just the former players. It is the thin line the Dutchman treads this season.
Preston (3-5-2): Stuckmann; Clarke, Huntington, Wright; Wiseman, Welsh, Kilkenny, Laird, Gallagher; Davies, Garner.
United (4-1-3-2): Valdes; McNair, Smalling, Rojo, Shaw; Blind; Herrera, Rooney, Di Maria; Wilson, Falcao
Preston: Humphrey, Buchanan, Reid, King, Ebanks-Blake, Woods, Robinson
United: De Gea, Evans, James, Blackett, Valencia, Januzaj, Young, Fellaini, Pereira, Van Persie
Preston 22 – Draw 22 – United 31
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey & David Bryan
Fourth Official: David Webb
Preston 1-3 United
£1 bet club
1-3 @ 12/1
Running total: £(-)8.50