They came, they saw, and eventually, with the assistance of a goal that had a none too subtle hint of offside about it and a penalty kick that may or me not have been partially justified, Manchester United are through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. In knockout competitions few will remember how you got to there if you end up winning the competition, but none of this is to say that there was a considerable amount of glory about their win at League One Preston North End. If this team is expected to challenge for the Premier League championship again next season, coach Louis Van Gaal will have further work to do. His Manchester United team remains lumpen in its application, and the comfortable eventual scoreline last night only masks these potential cracks.
Van Gaal deserves credit for making a substitution that changed the course of his team’s evening. Radamel Falcao, all £250,000 a week of him, didn’t so much look like a fish out of water as a salmon who’d reached his spawning ground and was waiting to die. The coach replaced him with Ashley Young, another player who has borne his fair share of criticism as part of United’s dysfunctional generation, and this decision turned out to change the team’s evening. Young offered fluidity, width and pace. It was a tactical switch that Preston were too limited to be able to deal with.
Even so, Manchester United required a dollop of good fortune the secure their place in the next round of the competition. With Preston leading by a goal to nil and looking effervescent enough to threaten a second goal themselves, Herrera squeezed a shot in off the far post with Wayne Rooney, quite clearly in an offside position and quite clearly blocking the goalkeeper’s view of the shot. Even taking into account generous changes to the offside law in recent years, to suggest that Rooney wasn’t “interfering with play” seems a little fantastical.
With the second goal, a shot from a narrow angle from the frequently brow beaten Marouane Fellaini, the noise levels at a hitherto excitable Deepdale finally started to fall away a little, and in the closing stages of the match a little icing was added to United’s cake when an onrushing goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann gave Rooney all the excuse he needed to take a swan dive in the vicinity of his outstretched leg and win – the word “earn” feels like a bit of a stretch, there – a penalty that he converted with a minimum of fuss. On the balance of play, it was a result that Manchester United just about merited, but if they are to win the FA Cup for the first time in a decade this year, they are making very hard work of what should be very routine draws.
It might, of course, have been so much different. Two minutes into the second half, Scott Laird’s shot from the edge of the penalty area flew into the corner of the goal and threatened to lift the roof off Deepdale. At first, fingers of blame seemed angled in the direction of the Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea, but a second view confirmed a deflection off Valencia, although to what extent this may have impacted upon De Gea’s ability to block the shot was questionable, to say the least. This goal was the least that Preston deserved for their endeavours in the first half, when they matched the visitors ball for ball. When push came to shove, however, the run of the ball and a little sleight of hand was enough to turn the tables back in favour of the Premier League club. Ever was it thus.
So it is that Manchester United progress to the next round of the competition and a home match against Arsenal, a match that will leave television executives drooling (to the extent that anybody drools over the FA Cup these days) and which will ensure that at least one on the gilded few will make it through to play one of the semi-final matches at Wembley. But while a match between two of the three biggest clubs left in the competition may cause a tingling in the underwear of those whose job it is to deliver mass audiences to television audiences, how important is anyone else likely to consider it?
After all, the match will be played in March and with both Manchester United and Arsenal chasing a place in the Champions League, so there’ll doubtlessly be many, many people on hand to tell us all exactly how important finishing in fourth place in the Premier League is and how unimportant winning trophies is because, as with so many other areas of modern life, money rules and glory drools. Perhaps we’ll be treated to the sight of two teams each constantly gifting the ball to each other in the hope that they will score and end the misery that is the possibility at least one trip to Wembley. It’s enough to make the stoniest of hearts bleed.
Perhaps all of this is a sign of the times. It has more than occasionally felt this season if there’s nothing exceptional about the quality of the Premier League this season, and its glut of early eliminations from this year’s FA Cup seems to have only compounded that feeling. Manchester United may have got past the hurdle that they were faced with last night, but this was a stodgy performance against limited opposition, and if the glory days of two decades of dominance under Alex Ferguson are to return they remain, for the time being, a work in progress, and if they are to return to trophy winning ways, they face stiffer tests ahead.
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