Preview: FA Cup Final – United vs Crystal Palace

For the first time since 2007, Manchester United will travel to Wembley Stadium in  pursuit of a, now record leveling, 12th FA Cup title. Only Arsenal can boast more victories than United in the Cup, having both equaled, and then broken, that record over the last two seasons. United will be hoping to come away from a truly disappointing season with at least something to smile about.

The FA Cup has proven to be something of a saving grace for Louis van Gaal. Going into the last game of the season knowing 4th position was all but out reach, many other clubs may have cut ties and moved onto another manager with another approach to things. United’s progress in the famous cup has given King Lou something of a stay of execution. Success in the FA Cup may well give him another season to implement his philosophy.

United’s path to the Final has been one navigated with minimal difficulty.  A 1-0 win over Sheffield United in the Third Round, courtesy of a 93rd minute Wayne Rooney penalty, led to a trip to Pride Park on a Friday night, and a 3-1 victory over hosts Derby County in the Fourth Round. Shrewsbury Town were dispatched 3-0 in the Fifth, and United faced their first Premier League opposition in West Ham United in the Sixth Round. United looked down and out when Dimitri Payet dispatched one of his trademark free kicks, however United equalized 7 minutes from time thanks to boy wonder Anthony Martial. A replay at Upton Park saw fireworks as United’s OTHER boy wonder, Marcus Rashford, buried from outside the box, and the human chest himself, Marouane Fellaini, smuggled a second moments later. A late charge from the Irons yielded a consolation, but United hung on, and a trip to Wembley was on the cards.
Everton were all that stood in United’s way, and early signs were that United would not only see safe passage through to the final, but would embarrass the Toffees in the process. Fellaini picked up where he left off by scuffing his effort past Joel Robles, and United led 1-0 at half time. Then, pandemonium. Everton earned a penalty, which gave David de Gea the perfect opportunity to save United for the 1800th in April, however he could nothing about the Chris Smalling own goal which leveled the tie. United looked rattled, but survived wave after wave of Everton attacks. And then, when extra time looked all but certain, the ball fell to Ander Herrera. He was literally wrestled to the ground by Phil Jagielka, but he did not give up. As he fell, he extended his leg ball-wards, and managed to fashion a half chance, which fell to the FIRST boy wonder. The result? See the picture. Bedlam. From the final whistle, to the walk to the station, “TONY MARTIAL CAME FROM FRANCE…”. 92nd Minute. 2-1. Oh how we have toiled for moments like that.

After seeing out a 3 match ban following a fracas that Louis van Gaal described as “only acceptable in sex masochism”, Marouane Fellaini, the oft maligned, yet recently reliable, 8 foot 10 inch chest of a man, is widely expected to start in the centre of the park. In the 3 games Big Felli has missed, United have laboured to a 1-0 win over Norwich, lost 3-2 (after leading 2-1 with 20 minutes left) at West Ham, and are ,at the time of writing, playing out a victory over Bournemouth. One wonders whether United would have been more ready to deal with the physicality of West Ham United with Fellaini in the side, and I’m certain van Gaal laments not having his go-to ball winner available for the run in. He is almost certain to start, after neither Ander Herrera nor Juan Mata have managed to impose themselves on the vacant slot in the centre of the park. Marcos Rojo appears to have picked up an injury in training, and, while he’ll hope to be fit and ready for selection, I certainly do not. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson looks the far more natural left back, and seems more than comfortable whenever he plays. The team almost picks itself, bar one position. In my eyes, the only position worthy of debate is the Right Midfield position. Mata has been deployed there, Lingard is a natural there. My thoughts are that Jesse Lingard will line up at right midfield, with United playing the same Midfield/Forward as the Semi-Final. In all I imagine United will line up as suchLINEUP111463518834380

United’s opposition comes in the form of Crystal Palace, who have seen out a season that threatened to be great, yet fell apart as quickly as it came together. Registering only 2 league wins since Boxing Day, and 12 points in the same period of time, saw Palace go from outsiders for Europa League to relegation candidates in less than a month. As with United, Palace have found the FA Cup to be a welcome distraction from the nightmares of league football. Palace won 2-1 at Southampton in the Third, at 1-0 at home to Stoke in the Fourth, 1-0 and 2-0 at Spurs and Reading in the Fifth and Sixth rounds respectively, before overcoming Watford 2-1 in their Semi Final. Palace will be hoping to win their first major trophy in their 110 year history, and will be keen not see a repeat of their last FA Cup Final. The 1990 FA Cup, against United, no less, ended 3-3 on the day. United won the cup 1-0 in the replay, and Palace have only now managed to match their best ever finish. United managed a 2-0 victory over Palace in their last meeting.

It may be something of a moot point, given it’s a cup final, but for everything we’ve seen this season, to even give van Gaal an argument to stay on this season, this game is a must win. 5th position and a Cup Final is not good enough for a club that has spent close to £250 million over the past 2 years. Nothing but a win will do here. With the rise of Leicester and Spurs this year, Klopp getting a full season at Liverpool, Conte taking over at Chelsea, and Pep Guardiola himself joining the cause at the blue half of Manchester, van Gaal knows that, unless tangible evidence of improvement is shown, he will likely be moved on in favour of a monster he helped create. But that’s for another day…

Kick Off Time: 5.30pm
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Last 5 Games – United: WLWDW
Last 5 Games – Crystal Palace: LWLWL

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Preview: Aston Villa vs United

After a satisfying, if uninspiring, victory over Spurs, our attentions are turned swiftly to a Friday Night match! Friday nights are due to come into play from next season under the terms of the latest money spinning TV Broadcasting deal. At the time of drawing, no one knew whether United would have a Tuesday or Wednesday night Champions League play off, twin that with an upcoming, Saturday afternoon EDL march in Birmingham (I assume Tim Sherwood is due to speak or something (THIS IS A JOKE. PLEASE DON’T SUE, TIM)), Sky saw it as the perfect opportunity to trial their new toy before it’s due for release.

Saturday afternoon’s victory over Spurs saw United manage to get points on the board in an impressively unimpressive manner. Off memory, United managed to get maybe 5 shots away, with perhaps 2 of those on target. The gulf between Spurs and Villa is vast, so I’d expect at least twice as many attempts and attempts on target. With everyone a game sharper, and captain Wayne Rooney hopefully rust free after a trip to the mechanics, you’d hope to see a return of the expansive and expressive football that often threatened to overcome this side towards the end of last season.

Squad wise, van Gaal is a creature of habit. For all his rotation and tinkering last season, he did pick the same XI for about 3 months at the end of last season. It was abundantly clear to anyone watching that a spark was missing on Saturday. The midfield pairing of Carrick and Handsome Morgan required an extra body in the middle to carry the ball through to the forwards, and Memphis, unfortunately, was not that player, given how high he was playing. I would suggest the addition of Ander Herrera to the midfield to at least give the aforementioned pairing an option other than turning around and giving the ball to Daley Blind. It’s who you drop to accommodate that addition that’s difficult. Memphis did enough in the first half to warrant another look this evening,  Ashley Young absolutely schooled Kyle Walker, who, if nothing else, if a better player than Villa option Leandro Bacuna, and John Mata‘s interception directly led to the goal. If I were to hazard a guess, if Herrera were to drop in, I’d say it would be for Young.

It’s all hypothetical, either way. van Gaal won’t change this side. Even, despite David de Gea declaring himself available and ready for this one, he’s already ruled Dave out for the next 4 weeks, so expect Serge Romero to start again this evening. In all, my predicted line up is thus

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As for this week’s opposition, Aston Villa kicked off the season with a smash and grab victory over Premier League new boys Bournemouth, with Christian Benteke replacement Rudy Gestede bagging the winner from a corner. What this means for United is that Villa are gonna try to lump it into the box at every opportunity, testing the collection of Serge, and the aerial ability of our centre halves. While this isn’t a problem for Balling, there are still questions to be answered over the standard of Romero’s abilities, and the quality of Blind in the air as a centre back. This will be a different type of test for those two, one I’m unsure of how it will end.

Villa are a different sort of beast under Sherwood than they were under Paul Lambert. Gone is the Villa that would set up to defend a draw, and in comes a more gung-ho style. For all Sherwood’s faults (of which there are many), you can’t fault his desire to win at all costs. Free signing Micah Richards captains the side after successfully convincing Fabian Delph to defect to Manchester City mere hours after making a YouTube video telling fans he would stay, and young Jack Grealish carries the burden of expectation bestowed on him at the tender age of 14 years old.

I don’t expect much of a game from Villa, truth be told. We haven’t lost at Villa Park since 1999, we beat Villa 3-0 in our last meeting, and Villa have lost their best 2 players since then. Doesn’t expect liquid football to be in effect for the next few weeks, but a form of total football to on show tonight.

Prediction: Villa 0-3 United

State of the Squad – Defence

Right, we’ve got a lot to cover here, and not a lot of time to cover it in, so i’m gonna dive straight into this with a simple sentence: “On paper, our defence is a mess.”

Let’s just think about that for a bit. For a side that housed one of the most prolific centre back partnerships in Premier League history, how did it get so bad that Michael Carrick is often considered a viable option at the back? The sheer lack of consistency certainly doesn’t help; van Gaal having to draft in Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair early on in the season is surely proof of that, but he’s had almost three transfer windows to pull in some reinforcements! Why isn’t nothing being done about this shoddy back line? Does van Gaal see something the rest of us don’t see?

So we actually have made movements in the right back position. Matteo Darmian has been signed from Torino, presumably to take over from winger-turned full back Antonio Valencia. As a result of this move, Willoughby favourite Rafael has made his way across the channel to Ligue 1 runners-up Lyon (fun fact, Rafa picked number 20 as his squad number because United have won the league 20 times). At left back, one would imagine Luke Shaw will find a way to stay fit for more than 20 minutes this season. Failing that, Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, and even Tyler Blackett proved more than capable filling in at times last season. Fingers crossed Luke can start to deliver on some of the promise than got him here in the first place.

Centre backs are where things start to get a bit sticky. Chris “Balling” Smalling, Phil “Jonesy” Jones, Paddy “Paddy” McNair, and Jonny “oh fuck off already” Evans make up out centre back options, as well as the aforementioned Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo and Tyler Blackett. Not a great deal here, I’ll concede. That being said, Balling was a standout performer for me in the final few weeks of last months, successfully nestling Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Christian Benteke and Olivier Giroud in his back pocket. The man must wear clown trousers or something. So impressed was Big Lou with Balling’s efforts, he claimed he was his 3rd choice captain. Not bad going for a man written off after the stupidest sending off in recent Manchester derby history.
When it comes to who partners the big man is another matter. Seeing a lot of time in that position in pre-season was one Daley Blind, who appears to be the Dutch John o’Shea, in regards to his versatility. Expect him to stake a claim for the goalkeeper role next season. As for Marcos Rojo, he spent a season getting used to the league, and looked pretty good in parts, but he did little to convince me he could be more than a squad player. In fairness, Blind could be a welcome choice. He’s a fine passer of the ball, he appears to keep a cool head, and he’s incredibly composed. He’s everything Jonesy is not.
Phil Jones was proclaimed as a future England captain the day he signed for United. Steve Kean claimed he would be better than John Terry. Sir Alex himself suggested he could become United’s best ever signing. Some of that praise may have been over-cooked. Had he not set us back £16.5 million, he might not even be at the club anymore. He’s clumsy, he throws himself into a tackle and ALWAYS looks like he’ll get injured as a result, and he headered the ball off of Giroud’s foot in May. He’s a parody of what English defenders are stereotyped as. And no matter how much heart he shows, this is a big, big season for him. While he is only 23 years old, and about 3 years from when he might be reaching something close to his peak, he’s now going into his seventh Premier League season, and he has shown very little development from those early performances.
The experienced head in all this SHOULD be Jonny Evans; a man who looked VERY good in Sir Alex’s final season when paired with Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic, but has fallen off the face of the planet ever since. So poor his performances last season were that he was the first name brought up whenever a potential centre back signing was mentioned in conversation. I introduce to the “Jonny Evans Test (patent pending)”. If someone mentions a centre back, asked the question: “Is he better than Jonny Evans?”. If YES; sign the man.

Clearly this a defensive corp that needs a leader. And whether that leader is promoted from within, or recruitment externally (come on, Ramos. Do us a job.), it needs one sharpish. Given Balling’s end of season form, maybe it’s him?

On the topic of this defence, a lot has been made of how bad it is perceived to be. This defence conceded the 4th least amount of goals last season. You’d hope, with an extra years experience, it can improve on that. I’m not saying that it doesn’t need work, but maybe that’s Big Lou’s thinking behind not splashing on a centre back (just yet)? If we can keep a back four fit for a few months, and give them a solid run of games, who knows what might happen. That’s something we didn’t have last season.

TL;DR – The defence isn’t actually that bad, could probably do with an experienced body in there, but injuried are stopping it from showing us its true potential.