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