Seldom has a Manchester United victory left supporters as dismayed than they are now. United’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa was another low in Louis van Gaal’s managerial reign, despite the three points keeping the Reds’ top four hopes alive. United lumbered to an unconvincing victory against one of the worst sides the Premier League has ever seen. The crowd at Old Trafford was as flat as the style of play, with fans increasingly frustrated with Van Gaal’s philosophy. Football is a game of entertainment, and the Premier League is the home of end-to-end attacking football. In truth, United’s fans are simply bored.
Indeed, United fans watching Super Sunday last weekend will have been jealous of the feast of attacking football that Leicester City and West Ham United served up. Then Tottenham Hotspur demonstrated, on Monday night, the kind of youthful, bold attacking football that United used to be known for. In contrast, United fans have witnessed just 40 league goals this season. No wonder season ticket sales have been so slow that the club has extended its renewal deadline.
With Van Gaal almost certain to leave the club this summer, the temptation is to look ahead and begin dreaming of big name managers, superstar signings and potential glory next May. However, there is still an FA Cup semi-final against Everton at Wembley next weekend, with Wednesday night’s visitors, Crystal Palace, representing a perfect warm-up.
The club is desperate for a tropjy after nearly three barren years post-Sir Alex Ferguson. Despite City’s draw at Newcastle United on Tuesday night, the FA Cup should now be United’s priority going into the final few games of the season. Silverware would allow Van Gaal to bow out as a winner, albeit an unpopular one. It would be a high note on which to end the Dutchman’s career, something Van Gaal deserves despite his flaws.
The FA Cup offers United’s young squad its first potential taste of success and the opportunity for a new manager to leverage this in the quest for further glory. This was certainly the case with United’s last transitional team after Ferguson’s side ran out 4-0 winners over Wigan Athletic in the 2005/6 League Cup final. At the time, United had not won the title since 2003, and the club was in danger of being left behind by José Mourinho’s Chelsea.
That cup-winning squad included Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, who all won their first medals with United that day. It proved to be the catalyst for the club’s most successful ever period in which Ferguson’s side won three Premier League titles, the Champions League and two League Cups in four years. Winning is contagious, and perhaps prioritising the FA Cup over the top four this year may prove to hold similarly beneficial properties for this United team.
That said prior to Saturday’s semi there is still Palace, a team that has been even more inconsistent than United this season. In Alan Pardew, Palace boasts a manager who ensures Premier League status, but has never been able to take any of his teams further. This pattern is now familiar at Palace – after a very promising start to the season the Eagles briefly found themselves in a relegation battle.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The FA Cup offers United’s young squad its first potential taste of success and the opportunity for a new manager to leverage this in the quest for further glory. Prioritising the FA Cup over the top four this year could prove beneficial in the long-term.[/blockquote]
United come up against Palace in the visitors’ best run of form since the turn of the year. Pardew’s side is undefeated in its past four games and a tally of six points in April is more than the total points the team accrued through January, February and March combined.
Pardew’s side also has its own semi-final to consider against Watford, which may force the manager’s hand when selecting his team. However, the Englishman played down the importance of rotation, instead insisting that victory at Old Trafford is better preparation for his side’s trip to Wembley.
“One or two changes I will definitely do, just to increase the energy,” Pardew said. “We are effectively playing four games in 12 days at Premier League standard. We need to be strong and keep focused. I am not going to change my team completely, I don’t believe in that.”
Van Gaal is in a difficult situation ahead of Wednesday night’s game. The Dutchman wants to rest players ahead of Saturday’s semi-final, but he also knows that failure to pick up three points on Wednesday pushes Champions League qualification further away. Van Gaal does not believe his players have one eye on Wembley, arguing that Champions League qualification is just as important.
“They have to focus on this game because we still have to qualify for the Champions League,” said the veteran coach. “It is important to beat Crystal Palace and they have the same problem. They are also in the semi-final and maybe they are thinking about that game.
“We have to win, we must win otherwise we cannot close the gap. They [Arsenal] have four more points than us so we are dependable of them. We know that, but you can only give pressure by winning, so we have to look after ourselves.”
As for Van Gaal, he is a man beginning to look like someone who knows his time is up. The Dutchman has not been as animated in his press conferences or post-match interviews for some time now, but still lives in hope that he can go out as a winner before jetting off to his Portugal to enjoy retirement.
Team news and line-ups
With Van Gaal under pressure to win two games this week the temptation is to resist rotation. Recent performances highlight that United cannot afford to be complacent, meaning the manager is likely to select a mix of guaranteed starters and fringe players. There have been no fresh injuries sustained from United’s narrow win over Villa, while Van Gaal confirmed Ander Herrera is back in the match day squad after recovering from a knock.
Matteo Darmian will come back into the side after sitting out of the last two games due to a disastrous cameo at Tottenham. Chris Smalling and Daley Blind continue at centre half, while Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is fit again, although is unlikely to play after his involvement in United’s under-21’s title-winning victory on Tuesday night. Tim Fosu-Mensah’s performances mean that he is now, arguably, United’s first choice full-back and will be rested ahead of the Cup semi-final, meaning the inconsistent Marcos Rojo starts at left-back.
In midfield, Michael Carrick sat out Saturday’s win over Villa, but will probably be re-called into a holding midfield role. He will be partnered by the fit again Herrera who is in need of minutes after a stop-start season. It is unlikely both midfielders will finish the game, however, as Van Gaal looks to preserve key players ahead of Saturday’s game at Wembley.
Further forward, Jesse Lingard was also rested at the weekend and can expect to play a part in both games this week. Juan Mata is likely to play in both games, although is might not make the full 90 against Palace. Meanwhile, Memphis Depay, who showed flashes of brilliance as well as moments of frustration against Villa, could play the full 90 on the left on Wednesday, handing Anthony Martial a much-needed rest.
Shuffling the pack means that Wayne Rooney could lead the line against Palace. The Scouser is traditionally slow to regain fitness after returning from injury but performed well against Villa and needs minutes ahead of the cup semi-final. Marcus Rashford could drop to the bench, with the youngster in need of a much needed breather.
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistants: M Salisbury, S Long
Fourth Official: M Jones
United 2-0 Palace