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 build up to a big FA Cup semi-final is usually something to savour, but that is not necessarily the case at Everton or United, with a bigger narrative in mind. Everton is in a dark place under Roberto Martinez, with the manager openly criticised by an Everton supporter base that has lost its patience. There is a growing resentment of the Spaniard, which even the club’s first trophy in over 20 years may not quell.
Everton’s disastrous performance against Liverpool in midweek could be the final nail in Martinez’ coffin. The Spaniard’s team showed little conviction and was easily picked apart by, what is on paper, a poor Liverpool side. Anything other than a win on Saturday could see the Spaniard’s fate sealed as early as Monday morning.
United fans have dreamed of silverware since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. Should United win the FA Cup it will represent a joint record 12th time. Yet, there is also a widespread realisation that United’s Board could stick with manager Louis Van Gaal should the Dutchman secure silverware. It is weighing heavily on the mind. Indeed, numerous polls in social media this week indicated that United supporters might be happier forgoing success in the Cup should it ensure the manager is sacked. Dark times.
There has been little to celebrate under Van Gaal over the last two seasons. Two home wins in a row have not done enough to lift the mood around Old Trafford, with a 1-0 win over relegated Aston Villa and a 2-0 win over a, frankly, disinterested Crystal Palace not enough considering the club’s huge outlay in support of a manager who promised that he would ‘make history’ at United. He will: the Reds will end the season with the lowest goals total of any United side in the Premier League era.
Some fans are beginning to vote with their feet. The official attendance at Old Trafford for Wednesday night’s fixture was given at over 75,000, although those inside the ground will attest to large numbers of empty seats – perhaps more than 10,000. That will set alarm bells off in the Old Trafford boardroom more than most defeats ever will. After all, the Glazers value success off-the-pitch more than any on it, with empty seats potentially setting off a chain reaction that hits matchday revenue, sponsors’ perception of the club, and ultimately Ed Woodward’s bottom line.
Van Gaal is still likely to leave in the summer despite a growing top four challenge and potential FA Cup glory on the horizon. In that spirit Saturday represents the perfect opportunity for Dutchman to head into retirement with a present to saviour at his luxury Villa in Portugal.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]United fans have dreamed of silverware since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013. Should United win the FA Cup it will be for a joint record 12th time. Yet, there is also a widespread realisation that United’s Board could stick with Louis Van Gaal should the Dutchman secure silverware. It is weighing heavily on the mind. [/blockquote]
Everton represents no guaranteed victory though, despite the Toffees’ disastrous campaign. Martinez knows this is his last chance to appease the fans demanding his head, with the Everton manager hoping to repeat his experience of winning the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic in 2013. The Toffees boast a good record against United in the Cup, winning the last two semi-finals between the sides. Everton has also won more FA Cup fixtures between the two overall, winning six of 11.
“We carry hurt and that’s normal after what happened in the last game,” Martinez said. “But clearly the focus is about the opportunity of being in the semi-final of the FA Cup. At the moment everything is about the semi-final, and everything is about taking our football club to Wembley, with a really strong feeling of being together, of facing adversity and being as good as we can in front of a very strong opposition”.
One of the strongest criticisms levelled at Martinez this season is his rose-tinted view on the state of his team. Not this time: the Spaniard realises the significance for his job prospects. The same cannot be said for Van Gaal, who remains dismissive of any criticism, brushing off legitimate questions about his job security.
“It is not for me to judge that,” claimed the veteran. “I have already said that in other press conferences. I do my upmost best and I have said that. We are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, we are still in the race for the fourth position in the Premier League and that was our aim.”
After spending close to £300 million few supporters will agree that United’s “aim” should be as unambitious as making the top four. Yet, it is a fitting representation of the Dutchman’s time at Old Trafford. Players are unsure of his philosophy and fans of his objective. Both, it seems, are sick of him. And whatever happens on Saturday it will offer only limited respite for two managers facing-off in a battle to save their jobs.
Yet, there is also reason to hope that the season can be rescued. After all, United heads into the semi-final in far better spirits than those held by the Merseysiders.
Team news and line-ups
The injury crisis is over, with Van Gaal confirming that only Luke Shaw and Bastian Schweinsteiger cannot play at Wembley. There is still hope that Shaw can feature again this season, although Schweinsteiger will not.
At the back Matteo Darmian may have played his way back into Van Gaal’s team after a being dropped following a poor cameo at Tottenham Hotspur. The full-back provided the cross that led to Crystal Palace’s own goal on Wednesday, before smashing home a half volley to score United’s second. Defensively the Italian nullified the threat posed by former Red Wilfried Zaha. Tim Fosu-Mensah, arguably United’s first choice full-back, is in line for a recall after being rested in midweek.
Van Gaal opted for an unusual 4-1-4-1 formation against Palace, which proved to be effective. Morgan Schneiderlin remained deep, neutralising any potential counter-attack, while smartly distributing possession to United’s more creative outlets. Jesse Lingard returned to his favoured right-wing position, although was one of the more defensive-minded players in an otherwise attacking formation.
Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney shared the role at 10, with one dropping deeper than the other when not in possession. It worked well, with Mata showing promising link up play on with Lingard on the right, and Rooney with Martial on the left. Should Rooney remain at United beyond the summer, the boyhood Evertonian will almost certainly take up a deeper role permanently.
Marcus Rashford is fit to start despite taking a kick on Wednesday. The young striker has become one of only a handful of good news stories for United this season and will be hoping to extend a fairytale start to his United career by scoring at Wembley.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: S Burt, J Brooks
Fourth Official: J Moss
Everton 1-2 United