It is the word that has become most synonymous with Louis van Gaal’s first six months at Manchester United: the “philosophy.” It is at one the Dutchman’s favoured “play style” and a system of coaching belief; his principles and a fundamental axiom. The philosophy has carried Van Gaal through two decades at the sharp end of European football during spells with Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national side. It is, also, barely in evidence at Old Trafford this season.
Indeed, such has become the Dutchman’s umbrella of pragmatism that is not easy to determine United’s strategy let alone an over-arching philosophy. Strip away Van Gaal’s bright young things at Ajax and even the embryonic forebear of Pep Guardiola’s world-beaters at Barça; forget, for a moment, that Champions League final with Bayern. Concentrate, instead, on the here at now in Manchester. The assessment is something less impressive – far, it seems, from a philosophy.
For much of the campaign Van Gaal has lived in the moment, fire-fighting one injury crisis to the next while, patently, not fully trusting his squad. This despite a summer outlay of around £150 million. Even in recent weeks, with a new injury-free paradigm a play, Van Gaal does not have a solid grasp on his preferred team. Perhaps not even a favoured strategy. Instead, the Dutchman has become a manager tinkering in an increasingly desperate battle to find the right balance. It is a brutal assessment six months into the role.
Yet, the number of systemic, tactical and personnel changes say much. And the Dutchman now routinely deploys his men – even the stars – out of position. Van Gaal has used 30 players during the Premier League campaign alone, while the Dutchman has veered between a range of systems, from three to five at the back, and a diamond to straight lines in midfield. None of it points to a man with a clear idea of where he is heading, injuries or otherwise.
Friday night’s fixture with Cambridge United at the Abbey Stadium is a case in point. The world’s oldest tournament is United’s sole remaining chance of silverware this season and, presumably, a key focus for Van Gaal’s squad. Yet, there was another formation shift – to a 4-4-2 diamond – with up to five players nominally used out of their typical position. None of Daley Blind, Antonio Valencia, Adnan Januzaj nor Angel Di Maria were deployed in the roles that made their names. Little wonder United served up another disjointed performance in East Anglia.
The curiosity was not in United’s lack of fluency though. Nor even in the team’s lethargy. After all the noted inability of Van Gaal’s team to move from back to front quickly is becoming passé. The real talking point was the Dutchman’s revision to a flat-back four system that he had been at pains to denigrate in the build up.
Curious not least because Van Gaal so forcibly pushed back against supporters who had called for a return to “4-4-2” at Loftus Road last weekend. It is a system in which the Dutchman has little faith that his squad can successfully execute.
“I said to my players I have twitched my ass on the bench because we were out of balance,” Van Gaal said last Thursday.
“We won against West Ham playing 4-4-2 for instance but all the time it was twitching your ass and I don’t like it. After I switched the system we won nine in a row then we lose one game and the discussion about the system start up again. It’s ridiculous.”
This is, of course, a crass reduction of a period in which United impressed rarely, winning games on the back of a tight rearguard, but a team increasingly passive in attack. That the Reds drew three away games over Christmas has become a symbol for the apparent lack of tactical ambition away from Old Trafford.
Van Gaal rejects discussion of his repetitive formation changes, externalising the debate while stretching the self-imposed time-limit for singularity with his squad. It was, remember, supposed to take three months. It will, it seems, be months yet.
“I do not have to take into account 600 million opinions,” said the Dutchman of the perceived criticism from United’s global fanbase.
“I cannot listen to what the media are writing or what other people are saying because they are never at the training ground or attending the team meetings. It is my job to analyse the games, communicate with the players and then make a decision with my staff. I do not feel the players are completely comfortable with the new system yet. I would like them to be more comfortable but we are working on this in the middle of the season so we are doing a lot of things during the matches.”
It is an observation that brings an obvious question though: what exactly was United’s coach trying to achieve during the cup tie at Cambridge? This was not Van Gaal is crisis mode at the Abbey Stadium, but a manager who made a conscious choice to field two midfielders in his back four, while pushing Fellaini nominally out to the right and deploying Januzaj in central midfield. None of it worked. Even Di Maria’s role at the head of the diamond is one not often occupied by the Argentinian during his time in Europe.
The formation switch did little for his players’ comfort, while the number of ‘square pegs in round holes’ played to the hosts’ strategy of defending deep and seeking to break into wide areas. And yet it is almost inconceivable that United will field a flat-back four against Leicester City at Old Trafford this weekend.
“I was very disappointed at half-time because we made the same error against Yeovil Town and Queens Park Rangers,” said Van Gaal in the aftermath.
“We played in the same style of play [as Cambridge] and you don’t have to do that. In the second half we played much better, we built up the game from behind and played no more long balls.
“I know in these matches every aspect of a game is against you. The crowd is against you – that is nice I think – but also the pitch and also the defensive organisation of the opponent. Cambridge are the weaker team – everybody knows that – and you have to solve that problem. You cannot always solve that problem.”
Away from the here-and-now of United’s cup fortunes, questions remain about the Dutchman’s use of his squad in addition to the lack of tactical consistency. Certainly Ander Herrera – benched again at Cambridge – Januzaj, Rafael da Silva, and Luke Shaw will ask the same question. Herrera has started just seven games this season – not all the absences explained away by injury. The Basque’s positive cameo as a second-half substitute, when the 25-year-old noticeably quickened United’s attacking momentum, is likely to be rewarded with a place on the bench against Leicester.
Meanwhile, Rafael and Shaw were dropped in favour of midfielders Blind and Valencia at Cambridge. Neither can be confident that they will return to the starting line-up at the weekend.
Then there is Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Di Maria, from whom Van Gaal is extracting less than the sum of their considerable parts. Rooney has started just five games in all competitions as a striker this season, while Di Maria has played in central midfield, on the wing, at ’10’ and up front during the campaign. The changes have rarely benefited the former Real Madrid player. Meanwhile, it is not obvious that Van Gaal fully trusts Mata as United’s principle playmaker, despite the Spaniard started 17 of 25 possible games this season.
None of this precludes Van Gaal’s eventual success of course. The Dutchman’s outstanding record suggests that he will get it right at United. Certainly, the 62-year-old’s gravitas earns him more time and, arguably, more lenient assessmentthan the inept David Moyes.
Yet, time is also a factor. Six months in and the sum is a strategic outlook that appears confused; a philosophy that is no clearer than on the day Van Gaal walked into Old Trafford. It is little wonder United supporters have begun to ask the questions Van Gaal so obviously dislikes.
Supporters waited years for an FA Cup draw against a lower league club and then two come along all at once. After dispatching Yeovil Town in the third round, with a little difficulty it has to be said, Louis van Gaal’s side faces League Two outfit Cambridge United under the Friday night lights in East Anglia. It is a game Van Gaal’s side simply must win.
Having faced Premier League opposition in the FA Cup nine times in succession prior to Yeovil it might be tempting to view Friday’s game as a bye into the fifth round. After all, there are 76 places between the mid-table League Two outfit and Champions League hunting United. The reality, as Van Gaal’s men discovered in Somerset earlier this month, is somewhat different. Not least because the Dutchman is likely to make more than a half-dozen changes to a side that is already struggling for fluency.
The match at the Abbey Stadium is also critical to the narrative surrounding United’s season. Absent from Europe, out of the Capital One Cup and some 12 points behind Premier League leaders Chelsea, the FA Cup remains United’s sole route to silverware this season. It is tempting to conclude that the Cup is more important to the club than at any time in the past decade.
Yet, Van Gaal’s story has gone just a touch sour in recent weeks following a disappointing festive period in which United dropped six points away from Old Trafford. Then came defeat at home to Southampton a fortnight ago. It was United’s second home reverse of the campaign and perhaps the first occasion on which Van Gaal’s critics emerged in force.
In truth there is something just a little meta in the critique. Pundits, so long quieted by Van Gaal’s outstanding record and natural gravitas, finally have some ammunition in the Dutchman’s persistent use of a 3-4-1-2 system that has so rarely performed this season. Not just in the media either. Supporters’ call for Untied to “attack, attack, attack” at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday was followed by the demand for a switch to a more traditional “4-4-2” system.
Little wonder some, who have been so reluctant to criticise United under the new manager, now openly question the Dutchman’s approach.
“They play out from the back but the tempo is too slow. Far too often they are keeping possession and passing it backwards. They’ve become quite predictable in the past few weeks,” said former United defender Gary Neville on Saturday.
“Louis van Gaal wants them to recycle the ball and switch the play. I’m not a fan of 3-5-2 because the centre-backs are the free men and they become the safe option. United looked far more dangerous on Saturday when they changed the system.”
Indeed, the three-man system has only intermittently looked fluent this season – and only really when midfielder Michael Carrick has been deployed as a central defender. The knock on is to limit United’s ability to retain possession in midfield. It is a circle that Van Gaal, for all his supposed brilliance, is yet to square.
The Dutchman retreated onto the defensive this week, claiming that he cannot “please 600 million fans.” Yet, it will be a team sheet of greater interest than normal against Cambridge, with supporters and critics waiting to see if the former Barcelona manager uses a three-man defence or retains the back four that finished last weekend’s victory over QPR.
The data supports a change too, with Van Gaal’s side having scored more goals, secured more wins and averaged more points using a back four this season.
Yet, the system, however controversial among fans, is one the players appear to back. Despite the mixed results this season Van Gaal is far from losing the dressing room as David Moyes did around this time a year ago.
“This is what the manager wants and I agree with it,” said midfielder Daley Blind. “I don’t think the whole philosophy of the club has changed. If you have played another system for a long time then you have to get used to a new one, but that is not a problem.
“There are games when we are doing it very well and games when we can do it better, but I feel we are improving. It doesn’t happen overnight but the players are comfortable in the system. The people on television can say what they want.”
Aside from the tactical make-up United will hand a début to former Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes, while youngsters Patrick McNair, James Wilson, Adnan Januzaj and Tyler Blackett could all feature. Blind, together with Marcos Rojo, could also play, with both needing minutes. Carrick is expected to drop to the bench, while Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney could be rested, but Luke Shaw and Robin van Persie are available. Jonny Evans, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling missed the game through injury.
Meanwhile, Cambridge manager Richard Money is confident ahead of Friday’s game, not least after his side thumped Newport Town 4-0 last weekend. The club lies in mid-table, but is on an upward trajectory after securing promotion to League Two from the Conference last season. Money, who is a former Liverpool player, says his team is ready to take advantage of any complacency in the visiting dressing room.
“I hope they come to the game full of optimism,” Money said. “I hope they come to the game with some belief that Friday can be the one in one hundred days that we can cause an upset. We want everyone to embrace the evening and an opportunity to showcase not just the football club, but the city.
“We won two trophies last year. We’ve got a group of players that know what it means to win. We’ve been lucky that two trips to Wembley last year has given us some kind of thought process as to what might happen and what needs to be done. I’ve got absolutely no doubts that they will play well Friday night.”
One Cambridge player looking forward to the game more than most is 34-year-old former United winger Luke Chadwick. The Cambridge-born player appeared on 25 occasions for United between 1999 and 2004, scoring two goals before going on to play for West Ham United and Milton Keynes Dons, among others.
Chadwick, who has appeared 14 times for Cambridge this season, watched the draw with his family earlier this month.
“I’d just been to mums to get my hair cut and I came home and watched it with the Mrs and the kids,” Chadwick told MUTV. “It was the only two numbers we took notice of. When it came out, we were happy at first to be at home and then when Man United came out it was bedlam in the house. The kids were going crazy. It was a great, great draw.”
That’s a sentiment to which Van Gaal will agree only if United emerge victorious. Given the Dutchman’s struggle to balance attacking and defensive imperatives this season there are no guarantees, although the critics really will enjoy significant ammunition if United’s veteran manager doesn’t get this one right.
Cambridge (4-4-2): Dunn; Tait, Taylor, Coulson, Nelson; Donaldson, Champion, Hughes, McGeehan; Elliott, Bird
United (4-3-1-2): Valdes; Rafael, Jones, Rojo, Shaw; Fellaini, Blind, Di Maria; Mata; Wilson, Falcao
Cambridge: Norris, Miller, Hunt, Dunk, Simpson, Bird, Chiedozie, Chadwick
United: De Gea, Lindegaard, Valencia, McNair, Blackett, Anderson, Pereira, Herrera, Januzaj, Van Persie
Cambridge 0 – Draw 1 – United 1
Referee Christopher Foy
Assistant Referees: Stephen Child & Darren Cann
Fourth Official: James Adcock
Cambridge 1-3 United
£1 bet club
Wilson to score twice @ 7/2
Running total: £(-)12
It is more than a decade since Manchester United last lifted the FA Cup; a record unbecoming of the 11 times winners. Yet, in a season when Louis van Gaal’s side can realistically win nothing bar the world’s oldest football tournament, the FA Cup may well become a saviour. Indeed, for the first time since the 1980s the 144-year-old competition may even become United’s principal focus this season, with Champions League qualification seemingly likely.
Still, there is danger in Sunday’s fixture with Yeovil Town even if the tie does not pair United with a fellow top-flight team for the first time in nine rounds. September’s Capital One Cup loss at MK Dons leaves few in Van Gaal’s camp counting on victory albeit against at team that is some 65 places below United in the pyramid. The League One strugglers have lost 15 times in all competitions this season, including three matches in succession over the festive period.
The Dutchman has won three domestic cup tournaments in the past two decades beginning with the 1993 KNVB cup when manager of Ajax. Further silverware came with the 1998 Copa Del Rey and then the DFB-Pokal in 2010. Yet, the veteran coach is no stranger to embarrassing defeat at the hands of lower league opposition too with both Ajax and Barcelona succumbing under Van Gaal’s management. The experience leaves United’s manager both focused on success in this year’s tournament and wary of falling at the first hurdle.
“It’s the shortest way to success. We are very interested and I think my players are also,” said Van Gaal of this year’s FA Cup.
“We know from our early exit in the Capital One Cup that league places mean nothing in the cups. In the Netherlands we have a saying: ‘death or the gladioli’, which means all or nothing and we will go into that match fully prepared.
“It’s always a shock when you play against a lower team because you assume that you have to win but it’s not like that in football so I have lost with Ajax against a lower team and I have lost with Barcelona against a third-division team.
“It’s a gladioli game. You are dead or you receive the gladiolus flower and in cup matches it’s always like that. I had the same experience against MK Dons, who are also in League One. You never know in a cup match, you have to win because you’re out if you lose. We have to beat Yeovil but every team in England wants to beat Manchester United so it will be difficult.”
Van Gaal walks a thin line between protecting his squad, which played four games over the Christmas period, and risking another embarrassing defeat. United drew three of the four festive matches – all away from Old Trafford – and has won just twice on the road this season. It is a record that the Dutchman knows must improve at Huish Park.
Yet, Van Gaal is keen to avoid fresh injuries to a squad already too familiar with the treatment room this season. It means that while United’s manager is likely to rotate this weekend a number of the Dutchman’s recent returnees will feature.
“I have to look to the fitness of my players,” said the 62-year-old. “We have played three games in seven days, but the game against Tottenham was within 48 hours [of Boxing Day] so the cumulative lactic acid is bigger than ever.”
Winger-turned-defender Ashley Young misses the match with a hamstring problem although Adnan Januzaj and Ander Herrera could feature after coming off the bench against Stoke City on New Year’s Day. Full-backs Rafael da Silva and Luke Shaw should play in what could be a return to a flat-back four in Somerset. Marcos Rojo and Marouane Fellaini could make the match day squad, while Angel di Maria is also in line to return to the bench. The game will probably come too soon for Daley Blind.
Indeed, Rafael could now earn an extended run in the side following Antonio Valencia’s groin injury. And the 23-year-old, who has won the Premier League, League Cup, Champions League and Club World Cup with United, says that the team is focused on securing a 12th FA Cup title next May.
“It’s been a long time since we won the FA Cup and I think we should now step up,” the Brazilian told MUTV. “We always take it seriously and we want to win it, so we’re going for it. When I get old and speak to my kids, if I can say I won everything with Manchester United it will be fantastic. It’s a trophy I’m looking to win.”
Meanwhile, Yeovil lie bottom of League One having been relegated from the Championship last season; it is a freefall associated with a squad built largely on loans and free transfers over the past two summers. Yeovil lost 24 players over the summer and another 29 the year before that.
Yet, manager Gary Johnson – who was assistant at Cambridge United when the Us came within two matches of being promoted to the Premier League in 1992 – has sought to stop his players being star-struck by United on Sunday. The 59-year-old has banned his squad from swapping shirts as he seeks another high-profile scalp at a club with a history of FA Cup glory.
“This club has a special reputation in the FA Cup,” said Johnson. “In their days before we got into the League they knocked out 17 League clubs, and you have to feel it would be good to add to that story if we can against one of the biggest clubs in world football. That’s only going to happen if we are totally focused. If you are taking photos and talking to people about swapping shirts later you are not in game mode.”
On the pitch second-round match-winner Kieffer Moore is a fitness doubt, although is likely to be risked, while Jordan Clarke is out with injury and Sam Hoskins cup tied. Moore scored Yeovil’s second as the Glovers beat Accrington Stanley 2-0 in a second-round replay.
The match is only the fifth time these sides have met – and the first since an FA Cup fifth round tie in February 1949. United scored eight at Maine Road in front of more than 81,000 spectators that day, with Old Trafford still being renovated after suffering war damage. United also beat Yeovil 3-0 at Old Trafford in 1938.
Indeed, the Reds have both form and history on side for the long trip south. United has lost just one of the past 39 FA Cup matches against lower league opponents. Nobody in Van Gaal side is countenancing adding to that record on Sunday; the Reds are very much focused on gladioli come May.
Yeovil (4-4-2): Steer; Ofori-Twumasi, Arthurworrey, Nugent, Smith; Foley, Edwards, Gillett, Leitch-Smith; Hayter, Moore
United (4-4-2): de Gea; Rafael, Smalling, Blackett, Shaw; Januzaj, Herrera, Fletcher, Pereira; Wilson, Falcao
Yeovil: Weale, Krysiak, Moloney, Berrett, Ralph, Brooks, Inniss, Smith, Eaves
United: Lindegaard, McNair, Jones, Rojo, Janko, Evans, Thorpe, Anderson, Di Maria, Powell, Mata, Fellaini, Van Persie, Rooney
Yeovil 0 – Draw 2 – United 2
Referee: Craig Pawson
Assistant Referees: Stuart Burt and John Brooks
Fourth Official: Keith Stroud
Yeovil 0-3 United
£1 bet club
Wilson to score a brace @ 4/1
Running total: £(-)9
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
Just 48 hours on from a laboured victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side hits the road once again on Monday. The Scot flew his Manchester United team home from the north east at the weekend, seeking any possible advantage ahead of United’s FA Cup quarter-final replay with Chelsea on Easter Monday. And while Monday’s match is another away from Old Trafford for United’s weary players, it is one with a significant carrot: victory brings a semi against rivals Manchester City at Wembley.
United took another huge step towards reclaiming the Premier League title at the weekend by securing three points against relegation threatened Sunderland. Ferguson can hardly have been impressed with his side’s efforts though; the third match in succession that the Reds achieved just enough, but little more.
That short run of mediocre form includes the opening cup match between these sides – a 2-2 draw in which Ferguson’s side was left hanging on for a draw just days after defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Indeed, United’s break against Chelsea at Old Trafford came amid a strong finish from the Londoners, while Ferguson’s players appeared spent by the tie’s end.
The contrasting fortunes of the sides in recent weeks sets up Monday’s Cup clash; a battle that will go some way to define two campaigns.
“I thought we were lucky to be honest with you,” said Sir Alex of the first quarter-final clash between the sides.
“I thought that tiredness had got into the team and, from a comfortable position for the first 20 minutes, you could see the signs when we started to give the ball away just before half-time. That is a definite sign of tiredness.
“The tiredness came, possibly, from the emotional intensity of the Real Madrid game and also the way we lost it. In the second half in particular there was no doubt that Tom Cleverley’s and our two full-backs’ legs had gone. That made it a long game against Chelsea and they had the advantage of extra players in midfield.”
Two days after each side played in the Premier League, the respective stamina of these squads will once again be tested, with Ferguson likely to make wholesale changes at Stamford Bridge. He has little choice given United’s leg-weariness in recent matches.
Ferguson could bring in eight or more new players, with Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nani, Javier Hernández and Tom Cleverley coming back into the side against Rafa Benitez’ outfit. Defenders Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand should also return after being rested against Sunderland.
Meanwhile, the Spaniard will again make changes to the side that lost at St Mary’s having rotated his squad heavily against Southampton on Saturday. Indeed, accusations that Benitez put his own vanity – a potential Cup win – over the club’s need for Champions League football next season weigh heavily on the temporary manager. After all, the former Liverpool manager has no chance of taking the role full time.
There is some good news for Benitez though, with Juan Mata returning to the Blues’ side after recovering from illness, although Gary Cahill is rated doubtful for the lunchtime clash.
Still, the home side has looked fresher in recent weeks, with Champions League football seemingly secure until Saturday’s defeat and the Europa League offering none of it’s bigger brother’s intensity. Defeat to Southampton may change the picture domestically at least, although in the short term it is United that must also overcome the disadvantage of both fatigue and injuries.
“We picked up two or three injuries, which doesn’t help,” said Ferguson after the Reds’ weekend victory.
“It was all down to the courage of the players that they got through it. Rafael got injured and Jonny Evans got a bit of a knock but carried on. That was great because we couldn’t afford to take him off. He said he’d last as long as he could but he got through it.
“I thought we’d lost David De Gea for a moment. He was out for a few minutes but recovered and played a really great part for us. Generally, we have a few bumps and bruises but we handled it well.”
With a double to chase this is no time for United’s season to wind down of course, although Ferguson’s hope of securing a record Premier League points total looks unrealistic on very recent form.
Still, with the Scot’s squad broad, if not truly deep, Ferguson will exploit the full resources on offer. After all, gaving gone 18 league matches without defeat has all but secured the Premier League title.
Should United win, the side will face City twice in a week; first, at Old Trafford in the Premier League next Monday, and then a Cup semi at Wembley on 14 April. Two games that will go a long way to deciding the Reds’ fate this season.
“We want to win the Double and we took a big step in the league,” van Persie told MUTV on Saturday.
“But we want to go for both. Now we have to look ahead to the FA Cup tie against Chelsea. It’s going to be a big test but I’m quite confident we can play well at Stamford Bridge and get a good result.
“It’s been nine years since United have won the FA Cup. It’s important to us. We have a big chance of reaching the semi-final against City. I don’t want to look too far ahead but we have a massive chance of winning the competition.”
With Cup final victory will surely come a first double since 1999 – the moment of Ferguson’s greatest hour. There are three tough matches in the competition before that, however, although with the Reds 15 points clear in the Premier League Ferguson can at least afford to refocus.
First, however, United must achieve a rare first – FA Cup victory at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea v Manchester United – FA Cup, Stamford Bridge – 1 April 2013 March 2013, 12.30pm
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Luiz, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Benayoun, Marin, Moses, Ba
United (4-3-3): de Gea; Smalling, Vidić, Ferdinand, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick, Giggs; Nani, Hernández, Rooney. Subs from: Lindegaard, Büttner, Evans, Powell, Young, Scholes, Valencia, Anderson, Kagawa, Welbeck, van Persie
Referee: Philip Dowd
Assistant Referees: Peter Kirkup and Andy Garratt
Fourth Official: Neil Swarbrick
Head to Head
Last 10: Chelsea 2, United 6, Draw 2
Overall: Chelsea 45, United 72, Draw 49
Another game, another cup to chase, just five days after Manchester United’s devastating loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League last Tuesday. Chelsea, stumbling from one crisis to another, will hope that it is it a good time to face United; Sir Alex Ferguson has demanded that his team responds to the heaviest set-back in the season to date.
There is no love lost between the managers, of course, with Rafa Benitez boasting the happy knack of irking Ferguson over the past five years. The Scot, meanwhile, insists he takes no pleasure in kicking Benitez “when he is down.” Yeah, right, as the kids might say.
Still, any tension between the coaches on the touchline may help, with the inevitable ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ atmosphere likely on Sunday; from the biggest game at Old Trafford in five years, to the postpartum blues.
And if United’s supporters feel down after the Reds’ unfortunate exit to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real on Tuesday, then the manager also has a job to lift his players. After all, the FA Cup remains important, with United not lifting the trophy in the best part of a decade.
“It is my job to galvanise the troops, who were fantastic on Tuesday and so were the fans,” admitted Ferguson on Friday.
“We owe them a good performance on Sunday. One thing we don’t do is give in. We’ll get up off our backsides and make sure we’re ready for Sunday. A big game’s probably the best thing for us and a home tie as well.
“We have a hard game against good opponents who have a good record in the FA Cup – probably the best in the last decade. We haven’t won it for a while so there’s a good incentive for us. Chelsea, it’s a home draw and I always say that if you get a home draw you’re happy. Hopefully we can navigate that and get through.”
Ferguson is likely to make changes to the side that lost 2-1 to Real on Tuesday. Not least a return to a more recognisable formation, with striker Wayne Rooney almost certain to start despite a week of paper speculation linking the 28-year-old with a move away from Old Trafford.
Doubt’s about Rooney’s Old Trafford future was emphatically rejected by Ferguson on Friday, although cynics will point to similar denials about David Beckham and Ronaldo in recent years. Behind the scenes it is recognised that United could accept a sizeable bid for the former Evertonian in the summer.
Still, with a double to chase, Ferguson is in no mood to ostracise Rooney, who has scored 195 goals in 394 games for the club.
“Wayne will be involved on Sunday,” said the manager.
“He will be here next year, you have my word on that. There is no issue between myself and Wayne Rooney. To suggest we don’t talk is nonsense. He understood the reasons completely. Tactically we got it right. We don’t always get it right, but we definitely did on Tuesday. There are no issues with the player and he will be involved on Sunday.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson will rest Ryan Giggs, who played in his 1000th professional game against Real last week. The Welshman drops to the bench, with both Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia in line for a return.
Robin van Persie, who has looked tired in recent weeks, could earn an over-due rest, with Javier Hernández waiting for an opportunity.
In defence Rio Ferdinand is likely to sit out the game, with Ferguson keen to counter Chelsea striker Demba Ba’s physical presence by retaining captain Nemanja Vidić alongside Jonny Evans.
“Giggs won’t play because he was the best player on the pitch on Tuesday. He’s done his bit for us this week. Now we’ll rest him and prepare him for next week. For certain games and now he won’t play on Sunday. He’s done his bit for us. Next week is a different game. He’ll get more rest and then we can prepare him for that one.”
In the meantime the incentive for victory couldn’t be greater, with nine years having past since United’s last triumph in the world’s oldest competition. Victory over Millwall in 2004 was followed by defeat to Arsenal a year later and Chelsea in 2007.
Arsenal’s penalty shoot-out win against United is now widely regarded as one of the least just cup victories, with the Londoners achieving just one shot on target in 120 minutes of action. It was Arsenal’s last trophy – some form of karma, fans might add.
Two years later and Ferguson’s side was beaten in the last minute of extra time by Didier Drogba’s winner for Chelsea, leaving United on 11 cup victories in 141 years.
“I felt we were very unlucky to lose the 2007 final,” Ferguson told Inside United.
“Didier Drogba scored in [almost] the last minute of extra time after we had a very strong penalty shout turned down. I think Ryan Giggs may have forced the ball over the line as well for a goal that wasn’t given. That was tough to take, but that’s football – you win some, you lose some.”
Meanwhile, Chelsea arrives in Manchester having lost to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League on Thursday night. Raul Rusescu’s penalty gave the Romanians a narrow first-leg lead, heaping further pressure on Benitez. While Europe’s second tier competition is hardly Roman Abramovich’s dream, Chelsea’s inability to challenge on any front this season ensures that the Spanish manager will leave Stamford Bridge in the summer.
No sympathy from Old Trafford for the former Liverpool coach, of course, with Ferguson wryly promising not to take advantage of Benetez’ difficult situation. The Spaniard courted further criticism last week by telling Chelsea supporters that they are “wasting their time” making anti-Benitez banners and worse, that the Stamford Bridge faithful have affected the team’s performances.
Ferguson, meanwhile, will love nothing more than to get Real out of the system quickly, progressing to an FA Cup semi-final draw that includes Wigan Athletic, Manchester City and Millwall or Blackburn Rovers. City aside, United will fancy a shot at the FA Cup final whatever the semi draw.
“In the cold light of day, we’re Manchester United and we have to get on with it,” concludes Ferguson.
“There’s nothing that can be done now. We have an important issue of a quarter-final on Sunday. I’ve cleared my mind. It’s just another day in the history of our club. Not a good day, but another day.”
Manchester United v Chelsea – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 4.30pm, 10 March 2013.
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea, Rafael, Vidić Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Ferdinand, Büttner, Nani, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, van Persie
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovich, Cahill, Luiz, Cole; Ramires, Mikel; Oscar, Mata, Hazard; Ba. Subs from: Turnbull, Azpilicueta, Ferreira, Terry, Ake, Bertrand, Marin, Moses, Benayoun, Torres
Referee: Howard Webb
Assistant Referees: Michael Mullarkey, Darren Cann
Fourth Official: Phil Dowd
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Chelsea 3, Draw 1
Overall: United 72, Chelsea 45, Draw 48
There was a moment during the chaos of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with Reading in December that a 4-3 scoreline looked not only unlikely, but preposterous. The two sides would surely score far more than that. Yet, amid two of the worst defensive performances of the current se ason, the sides conspired to see out a goalless second period after seven were struck in the first.
The sides meet in different circumstances on Monday night with an FA Cup quarter final place at stake. Neither likely to defend with such apathy at Old Trafford, even if each has greater priorities in the season ahead.
United, far from fresh after draining encounters against Everton and Real Madrid in the past week, will be much changed. Meanwhile, the visitors’ manager Brian McDermott is likely to prioritise league points with Reading still in the drop zone.
Still, United’s handsome Premier league lead, allied to a positive result in Madrid last Wednesday, ensures that talk of another treble is now rife. Too early, perhaps, but with United in a strong position on three fronts manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s challenge is as much to set expectations for the season to come, as it is a motivational driver.
“I just look at the next match, thinking about winning the next match,” said Ferguson, who may change his entire team for Reading’s visit.
“The reality is don’t get carried away by it, particularly in the FA Cup, anything can happen. You don’t want to be a shock, that’s for sure.
“So Monday, in many people’s eyes, it’s Reading: ‘Yeah, we’ve just been to Madrid, it was a great night and Monday will take care of itself.’ Monday can’t take of itself. We have to take care of it, we have to have performance which respects our opponents and the fact that the FA Cup can produce shocks.”
Ferguson will certainly rest forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, although the Dutchman has seemingly asked to be involved against Reading.
Meanwhile, with Paul Scholes still suffering from a knee injury and Michael Carrick due a rest, both Anderson and Tom Cleverley could start at Old Trafford. Forwards Nani, Ashley Young and Javier Hernández will rotate into the side.
Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard could come into the side, although the Danish international was a principle culprit in United shipping three against Reading earlier in the campaign.
Whatever the changes on Monday, Ferguson believes his squad is well equipped to challenge, especially with the quarter-final carrot of a match at home to Chelsea on offer.
“The incentive is there to get to the quarter-finals and I don’t think that will be lost on the players, no matter what side I pick,” added the 71-year-old.
“We’re taking nothing for granted. With an FA Cup tie, you always have to expect the unexpected. It happens so many times, you just don’t want to be a casualty or a shock. We’ve had a few over the years.
“I think there’s a good spirit in the place and they’re all contributing,” he said. “Whatever side I pick, I know we’re expected to qualify.
“That’s what happens with United. It doesn’t matter what team you play, you’re expected to win. But I couldn’t be more pleased than I am at the moment really with the form and the spirit in the place.”
Meanwhile, Reading make the trip north with Premier League status the season’s only real priority, although the Royals arrive in the side’s best form of the season, having lost just one match in the past seven.
The Berkshire side scored four against United in December, with McDermott’s side repeatedly punishing the Reds’ inability to deal with balls delivered from wide areas. Yet, Reading’s adventure at the Madjesky may not be repeated at Old Trafford, especially with McDermott’s side due to take on fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic next Saturday.
Midfielders Jimmy Kebe and Mikele Leigertwood are doubts with injury and unlikely to be risked. Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt could start, but veteran Jason Roberts and Alex McCarthy are definitely out.
And if Reading arrive at Old Trafford with alternate priorities, then there is also a risk of McDermott’s side being caught in the headlights. It is a risk exposed in McDermott’s obsequious sycophancy this week.
“Sir Alex Ferguson won’t take anything for granted, there’s no doubt about that,” said the Reading manager. “To move on the way they did from last season, to take that on to the pitch and that hurt, tells you the power of the people there.”
History is also on United’s side too – the Reds have won 10 and lost just one of the 18 previous competitive matches between these sides. Meanwhile, in FA Cup matches United has won six of the past seven.
It points to United’s safe passage and a – potential – quarter final tie against Chelsea to come.
Manchester United v Reading – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 8pm, 18 February 2013
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Jones, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner; Cleverley, Anderson; Nani, Giggs, Young; Hernández. Subs from: de Gea, Ferdinand, Rafael, Evans, Evra, Nani, Kagawa, Carrick, Valencia, Powell,Cleverley, Welbeck, Rooney, van Persie.
Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Pearce,Mariappa, Harte, Kelly; Hunt, McAnuff, Carrico, Guthrie, Karacan; Pogrebnyak. Subs from: Taylor, Shorey, Morrison, McCleary, Leigertwood, Kebe, Le Fondre, Blackman
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant Referees: Darren England and Steve Child
Fourth Official: Philip Dowd
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Reading 4, Draw 0
Overall: United 9, Reading 1, Draw 7
“Success is the result of what sociologists like to call ‘accumulative advantage’,” argued Malcolm Gladwell in the peerless Outliers. “Those who are successful are most likely to be given the kinds of opportunities that lead to further success.”
It is a viewpoint with which Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson might agree. After 26 years in the job the Scot not only desires more, but has greater tools with which to achieve success – an incremental benefit that has been challenged only by the Glazer family’s £500 million ownership tariff.
Indeed, Ferguson could make 11 changes against Reading in the FA Cup on Monday night, safe in the knowledge that he can still field a team full of international players against the Berkshire side. And the 71-year-old manager just might make wholesale changes to his team even with United on course to face Chelsea in an FA Cup quarter-final.
It is the surprising strength-in-depth this season – given the paucity of high quality options in central midfield and ageing defenders – allied to a squad resilience that has manager and supporters wondering whether United might be able to achieve something truly special before the campaign is out.
No wonder, with the Reds still in three competitions, that 14 years after Ferguson’s team reached the promised land talk has once again turned to the treble. It has become one of football’s most hackneyed ideals.
It remains unlikely United will recreate 1999 at Wembley on 25 May; after all nothing is secured just yet. United’s return fixture with Real Madrid on 5 March must still be won, while Brian McDermott’s Reading pushed the Reds during the Premier League encounter at the Madjesky in December. And despite a 12-point Premier League lead Sir Alex cannot count on a trophy regained.
United’s draw with Madrid came with plenty of credit, but also a warning. The home side’s dominance of possession, chances created and midfield reinforces the belief that Ferguson’s side is not without significant flaws.
Yet, says the Scot, his advantage gained since ’99 will come into play as United enters the final third of the campaign. More than a decade on from the treble, Ferguson is nostalgic for more.
“We lost to Middlesbrough in December and we never lost again,” said Sir Alex of the ’99 campaign.
“It was a tough FA Cup run that season, really tough. We were up against Premier League teams in every round. It’s nice to look back at these things and how it was done with the squad of players I had, which is not nearly as strong as the one I have now.
“When we went to the final, Keane and Scholes were suspended, but Henning Berg was the only injury and I had to pull in Jonathan Greening, who had only played once or twice, and he actually got a winner’s medal for sitting on the bench. That gives you an idea of the respective strength of the squads.
“I could have played a completely different team on Wednesday and I think we still would have got a result. It’s not just the four strikers I could change, you could change the entire team now.”
In fact Ferguson may well do so on Monday after the double-header with Real in the Spanish capital and Everton at Old Trafford last weekend. While the FA Cup remains a key target this season, nine years after the club last secured the 140-year-old trophy, the Royals also have more pressing priorities. Ferguson will surely gamble on a wholly different side from that which drew in Madrid.
In fact while United faces some challenging fixtures in the next month Ferguson can justifiably point to a trio of winnable matches against Reading, QPR, and Norwich before José Mourinho’s side arrives at Old Trafford in 16 day’s time.
United head into the period not only sporting good form, but with none of the internal politics running roughshod through Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City camp, that of Chelsea or indeed, Mourinho’s Real squad.
“I feel there’s a good spirit. That’s obvious,” adds Ferguson.
“When you’re successful you have to look at the overall squad – I know there were a lot of players disappointed not playing on Wednesday, I’d be disappointed if they weren’t disappointed, but the ones who weren’t playing were right behind the ones who were playing and that’s good.
“The way I’m looking at is to pick a team to win the next match and it will be a different team against Reading and again against QPR, Norwich and then Madrid.”
In that there is a concern of course, with Ferguson long dubbed “Tinkerbell” for the Scot’s penchant for repetitive change. But there is also a belief that the manager may just be striking the right balance between rotation and stability this season. Not least in Ferguson’s last-minute recognition that deploying a strong side against Everton last weekend’s went a very long way to sealing the Premier League title.
Still, United will be asked stern questions before the season is out, although few will come as tough as those faced at the Bernabéu last Wednesday. European and FA Cup competition aside, Ferguson’s side faces City at Old Trafford on 8 April, Arsenal at Emirates three weeks later and Chelsea on 4 May. Although each could dent the Reds’ ambitions, it is unlikely any will halt Ferguson’s train.
Those fixtures aside, Ferguson will be hugely disappointed if his side drops many more points domestically, while an FA Cup quarter-final draw against Chelsea at Old Trafford – should it come to pass – will disappoint few. Home against anyone ensures United remain in with a chance.
And none will seek success with Ferguson’s vigor. After all, while the details always matter in football, few will work as hard as Ferguson’s team between now and the season’s conclusion. The Scot will have it no other way.
Or as Gladwell put it “the people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”
It is one reason, among many, why Ferguson will fully deploy his accumulated gain between now and the summer.
There is a little something about Manchester United’s renewed relationship with the FA Cup this season. It has been a love affair not always on solid ground over the past decade, but after the Reds’ comfortable victory over Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday evening, thoughts have turned once again to a Wembley final in May. Eight and a half long years since United last lifted the 140-year-old trophy, the hunt appears to be on once again.
True, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has appeared in two finals – losing both – since the Scot’s side secured the FA Cup in 2004. Two further defeats at the semi-final stage, to Manchester City in 2011 and Everton in 2009, has brought scant comfort in a decade of cup disappointment.
But United’s long affinity with the FA Cup – a tournament the club has secured on a record 11 occasions – has been weaker in the past decade. Troublesome draws, bad luck and eyes on greater prizes has played a part in United’s relative sack of success since 2004.
While Ferguson selected a strong side to face City at Wembley two years ago, other priorities took precedent to United’s semi with Everton in 2009. Although, admittedly, there was genuine ill fortune in final defeat to Arsenal in 2005 and Chelsea two years later.
Yet, the past decade is in marked contrast to the earlier part of Ferguson’s tenure at Old Trafford that brought much joy in the Cup. United claimed the trophy four times in the 1990s – part of two doubles and the 1999 treble.
However, there is a real change in mood at Old Trafford this season, with Ferguson and his players insisting that the Cup is once again a priority despite the heavy workload at home and in European competition.
That Ferguson, together with his senior lieutenants Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, are the only members of the current squad to have tasted Cup glory says much for the barren period. Perhaps, too, the squad’s desire to rectify a perceived imbalance.
“We’ve not done as well as we should have done in the last eight, nine years,” said Giggs in the aftermath on Saturday’s.
“There’s a lot of players desperate to win it. With the history we’ve got in the competition, we should be there, we should be getting to finals, so hopefully this will be the year.”
Safely through to the fifth round after an almost embarrassingly comfortable win on Saturday, United will now face struggling Reading at Old Trafford in three week’s time.
The Reading tie is yet another in a long line of fixtures United has faced against Premier League opposition in recent years. Eight of United’s past 10 FA Cup fixtures have been against top level opponents – including 20 of the past 25 – and each of the last seven ties: Reading, Fulham, West Ham, Liverpool, City, City and Arsenal.
Still, with the Royals in the bottom three and staring into the abyss of relegation from the Premier League the year before a new TV deal kicks in, Ferguson’s side should comfortably progress. After all, Brian McDermott’s side can ill afford to concentrate on anything bar league salvation.
History is with the Reds too – the sides have met 12 times before in the competition, with United having lost just one of those fixtures.
However, Ferguson’s resolve to field strong sides in the competition will be sorely tested in the coming weeks, with United hosting Reading just three days after a physically and emotionally draining Champions League tie against Real in Madrid.
Indeed, a packed schedule up to the European ties surely ensures changes will be made in the FA Cup. United host Southampton at Old Trafford on Wednesday night, before travelling south to meet Fulham in the Premier League next weekend. The international break will the disrupt the squad before Everton come to Manchester in early February.
The schedule may be packed but at least the rate at which Premier League teams have fallen in this season’s competition – 13 of 20 by the fourth round’s conclusion – should make United’s passage a little easier, although Chelsea, Arsenal and City remain in the competition.
And should United continue to progress in both cups supporters’ dreams of another treble, 14 years on from the original, will grow – unlikely as the achievement may have seemed last August.
“We want to win all three. We want to win the treble. It is in our minds,” admits striker Javier Hernández, who’s brace against Fulham proved decisive.
For now fans can enjoy the potential of another FA Cup run – it has, after all, been far too long since United’s captain has climbed Wembley’s steps. Regaining the Premier League, conquering Europe even, may come first, but the Cup still retains a special place more than a century after a first victory in the competition.
“The FA Cup is an important trophy for us this season,” concludes Ferguson. “We haven’t won it for almost 10 years, so we really need to have a big performance this year”
There are few fans that will disagree with that sentiment.
FA Cup fifth round draw:
Huddersfield or Leicester v Wigan Athletic
MK Dons v Barnsley
Oldham v Everton
Luton v Millwall
Arsenal v Blackburn
Manchester City v Leeds
UNITED v Reading
Middlesbrough v Chelsea or Brentford
Another FA Cup tie; another fixture on live TV. Such is the appeal of the world’s most popular club that it is the 37th occasion in a row that Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been selected by the nation’s broadcasters to front Cup coverage – a run that dates back to January 2005.
Saturday evening brings Fulham to Old Trafford, and with Martin Jol’s team comes a former Red – striker Dimitar Berbatov. There will hardly be a dry eye in the house. Except, of course, for those Reds who didn’t take to the Bulgarian during four years in Manchester.
Jol’s side arrives under pressure in the Premier Leauge, although Berbatov has already become a popular figure at Craven Cottage, scoring seven goals in 20 appearances to date. Now just five points off the relegation zone, the Cup represents a distraction for the Londonders – welcome, or not. Indeed, Jol may make rotate his squad for the trip north; there are certainly greater priorities in west London.
The same could be said of Ferguson’s side too, of course, although there appears to be a renewed appetite to secure a 12th FA Cup this season after almost a decade without lifting the old trophy. Replay victory over West Ham United at Old Trafford in the third round has afforded the Reds another home tie and an excellent opportunity to progress.
That only Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes have secured the FA Cup among the current squad says much, not only for United’s priorities in the past decade, but a series of tough draws against Premier League opposition. The hat has been no kinder in the current season, then, but there is perhaps a renewed focus on the 150-year-old tournament.
“The boss has given a big message this season – he really wants to win the FA Cup,” defender Patrice Evra told United Review.
“He really wants it and so do we. It is the only trophy that I have not won at Manchester United. That seems impossible given that I am now in my seventh year here. The FA Cup means so much and, one day, I hope I will win it. Hopefully this year.”
The Scot may still use the tie to rest key players, with the double-header against Real Madrid in the Champions League coming up next month, but Ferguson’s should be a strong side at Old Trafford on Saturday night.
“We had a good week training in Qatar and it was a great time to go there – we couldn’t have picked a better moment actually when you consider the weather we’ve had here,” said Ferguson.
“So it’s worked out very well for us and hopefully we get the benefit from that. It was always the plan at some stage to do that this January. It couldn’t have worked out better for us.
“Jonny Evans and Ashley Young are still not 100% fit. Ashley Young is not far away. He trained a bit in Qatar. Jonny is just taking a bit longer than we thought. But he did a bit of training in Qatar. The bonus for us, of course, is that Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are both back.”
Ferguson may opt to rest 22-goal Robin van Persie, although Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernández and Nani could all do with minutes against the Cottagers. While veteran Rio Ferdinand is likely to be rested, with a match against Southampton in the Premier League on Wednesday evening.
Under-fire goalkeeper David de Gea may start despite Anders Lindegaard’s appearance in the third round replay against West Ham. On Friday Ferguson labelled critics of the young Spainiard “idiots,” with Alan Hansen and Gary Neville among a plethora of high-profile pundits to jump on a very public bandwagon.
Saturday’s will be a another test for the 22-year-old ‘keeper, who has grown in confidence this season, but – as evidenced against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend – can still struggle under the high ball. Fortunate, then, that Fulham’s is rarely a direct approach.
Yet, all eyes will be on Berbatov, who scored 56 goals in 149 appearances during four largely frustrating years in Manchester. Acquired for more than £30 million, Berbatov won many friends with a sublime first touch and moments of unrivalled skill, but drew ire for a seemingly complacent attitude and an inability to deliver on the biggest occasions.
Despite the perceived low return on United’s heavy investment Ferguson remains supportive of the 31-year-old Bulgarian, who moved south for around £2 million last summer.
“I don’t think Dimitar was a failure here,” said Ferguson. “Some people like to see players run through brick walls all the time. Dimitar is not that type of player, but he is very talented player and he had a decent goalscoring record here.
“The problem for him here was the way we wanted to play and the selections I had to make. When you have choices you hope to make the right one. Javier Hernández had a fantastic first season with us and as time went on he became a more regular player than Dimitar.”
Berabtov will start despite Fulham’s recent troubles in the Premier League, which ensure Wednesday’s fixture with West Ham remains a priority. Meanwhile, former Red Kieran Richardson misses the game against his old club with a calf injury, while winger Kerim Frei and midfielder Mahamadou Diarra did not travel.
The visitors predicament means that Ferguson’s side remains strong favourites for the tie. After all, United has beaten Fulham on 46 of the 78 occasions these two side have met, including a 3-2 victory in the Premier League last August. In eight previous FA Cup fixtures between the clubs, United has triumphed on seven occasions, including a 4-0 victory at Craven Cottage in 2009.
“We haven’t done as well in the FA Cup for a few years now,” admits Ferguson. “It’s a cup which has fantastic appeal given our record in it. We have benefit of the home draw. We’ll take that any time. It’s going to be a challenge for us but we would play anyone at the moment.”
That statement may be disingenuous given United’s tough draws over the past five years, but supporters will care little so long as United remains in the fifth round draw on Saturday evening.
Manchester United v Fulham – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 5.30pm 26 January 2013
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Büttner; Anderson, Cleverley; Nani, Rooney, Kagawa; Hernández. Subs from: Lindegaard, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra, Scholes, Carrick, Powell, Valencia, Giggs, Welbeck, van Persie
Fulham (4-5-1): Schwarzer; Riether, Hangeland, Hughes, Briggs; Dejagah, Ruiz, Sidwell, Karagounis, Duff; Berbatov. Subs from: Etheridge, Senderos, Baird, Kacaniklic, Petric, Rodallega
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Assistant Referees: David Bryan, Peter Bankes
Fourth Official: Michael Jones
Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Fulham 2, Draw 1
Overall: United 46, Fulham 14, Draw 18