The last time Sheffield United visited Old Trafford, back in 2007, Manchester United was on course for a 16th league title under Sir Alex Ferguson. The Scot earned plaudits for the way he had once again rebuilt a young, hungry side, following the summer sale of Ruud Van Nistelrooy. The Reds were playing attacking, free-flowing football, with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo leading the attack, and comfortably won 2-0 at Old Trafford. How times change.
The new year has at least started more positively than the way 2015 ended. United recorded a win against Swansea City, the first in eight games, and played in a more positive style of football in another tweaked Louis Van Gaal system last weekend. The 2-1 victory over the Swans signalled the end of a winless run that has wreaked havoc on United’s season, leaving the FA Cup as Van Gaal’s best chance of silverware in his second campaign in Manchester.
Yet, the Cup has been unkind to United for the past decade. The Reds last won the competition back in 2004 when goals from Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy sealed victory over Milwall. Since then, Arsenal has taken over as the record winners of the FA Cup, with back to back victories in the last two seasons.
Meanwhile, since 2004, United has appeared in two finals, in 2005 and 2007, with many believing the team was unlucky on both occasions. The club has also appeared in two semi-finals since victory over Milwall, in 2009 and 2011, and many supporters felt that United deserved to advance to the final each time. Fans are desperate to win the Cup again.
Despite the lack of success since in recent times the club can argue that the focus has been on the marathon of the league and the not the sprint of the Cup. However, with the league already out of reach this season, Van Gaal may be more inclined than usual to focus on the completion.
The ‘David vs Goliath’ cliché is too often used in the Cup, yet it is a competition that provides the touch of magic so often lost on the Premier League. The BBC’s tagline of “anything could happen” rings true, including last season when Cambridge United deservedly forced a replay at Old Trafford.
Like Cambridge, Sheffield United may be no pushovers. The Blades have developed a reputation of being giant killers in recent years. Nigel Adkins’ side has a fantastic record against higher ranked opposition, winning five of its last six ties in the competition. It was only two years ago when the Sheffield club reached the semi-final after a run in that saw the Blades record victories over Premier League Aston Villa and Fulham, as well as over Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic, before eventually succumbing to Hull City at Wembley.
The visitors bring more than 8,000 fans to Old Trafford and the team is in good form too, winning three of the last four games to leave Adkins feeling confident.
“On paper, Manchester United, who are riding high in the Premier League, should beat League One Sheffield United – but as everyone knows we don’t play on paper,” Adkins said. “The beauty of the FA Cup and the third round is there are always upsets and surprises, so why can’t it be us? It’s the Theatre of Dreams so why can’t we dream?”
Despite Adkins’ confidence it is a fixture the Reds should win, of course, although Van Gaal is determined to rest players he believes are in “the red zone.” It could turn out to be a harder task than it should be. Yet, the Dutchman has also voiced his desire to win the competition and spoke briefly about his side’s chances this week.
“It is football, you can win some and you can lose some,” said Van Gaal. “I think the FA Cup is very difficult to win and we have seen that already last year when we play against Yeovil and Cambridge United. Every match is difficult to win, no matter what level you have to compete with.”
Meanwhile, Morgan Schneiderlin, signed by Nigel Adkins at Southampton, is full of praise for his former boss.
“He was an important part in the Southampton rise. He came in when we were in League One and in his first year we went into the Championship and then the Premier League,” said the Frenchman.
“He didn’t have enough time to show his skill as a Premier League manager with Southampton but it was a joy to work with him”.
The Frenchman will not be involved on Saturday after being left out of the 18-man squad that checked into the Lowry Hotel on Friday night. The Reds have only lost one of the 18 games Schneiderlin has started since his summer transfer, and he will be missed on Saturday.
After all, United needs the win more than the opposition. The Blades‘ lie eighth in League One, with the club chasing promotion. For an outfit of Sheffield’s size it is the primary target, although it will surprise few if Saturday’s match brings another giant killing at Old Trafford.
Team news and line-ups
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Borthwick-Jackson, Herrera, Mata, Martial, Keane.
Sheffield subs from: Howard, Flynn, Sammon, Campbell-Ryce, Reed, McEveley, Wallace.
With United’s fans, players and management craving silverware the narrative is clear on Saturday: the Reds must win – and with a busy fixture period approaching, the possibility of a replay is on nobody’s agenda.
It is a case of one in and one on the injury front, with Jesse Lingard returning to training at the start of the week, but Phil Jones out after being withdrawn at half time against Swansea. Adnan Januzaj has returned to United from Borussia Dortmund, but Van Gaal confirmed the game has come too soon for the Belgian to feature.
Elsewhere, with several United players in the ‘red zone’, Van Gaal is likely to tinker with the line-up that started against the Swans. The Dutchman is set to persist with the Chris Smalling-Daley Blind partnership at centre back. Van Gaal might well wish to rest the Englishman, but with injuries affecting his squad he cannot afford to do so. Matteo Darmian continues at left-back in the absence of Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo, while Guillermo Varela could come in at right-back after Ashley Young was left out of the squad.
In midfield, Van Gaal rests Schneiderlin and Michael Carrick, with one eye on United’s trip to Newcastle on Tuesday. Bastian Schweinsteiger starts alongside Marouane Fellaini in the middle of the park. While most supporters would rather see Ander Herrera alongside the German captain, Fellaini offers much-needed height against a physical Blades team.
Further forward, Van Gaal can once again call on Lingard, whose pace and direct running have been missed on United’s flanks since the youngster suffered a hamstring injury. Juan Mata is likely to drop out after playing a large number of games this season, not to mention the Spaniard’s poor form. This should leave room for Andreas Pereira to make an overdue start in the number 10 position, with Memphis Depay supporting from the left.
Wayne Rooney’s captains privileges mean that he will start up front ahead of Anthony Martial. Martial was, once again, outstanding in victory over Swansea, however, with a sterner test at Newcastle to come, Van Gaal needs the French striker fit and sharp.
The Dutchman continues to believe that his side is playing attractive football. “We are always playing attacking football,” he said, “only now we have scored and that is the difference. That shall give more confidence and we have still to see that because one swallow doesn’t make a summer.”
True, but United couldn’t ask for better opposition to demonstrate that confidence is building. Should the Reds lose it will leave the club eliminated from three competitions by early January, and seemingly out of the title race. It is a situation no one could have envisaged at the start of the season. Win at all costs for Van Gaal, then, or new questions will be asked of the Dutchman once more.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: L Betts & D Robathan
Fourth official: A Haines
Manchester United 3-0 Sheffield United