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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