José Mourinho’s silverware-hunting men face a difficult tie in the FA Cup
So far adrift of the rampant Manchester City in the league, United’s hopes of domestic silverware rest solely on their FA Cup exploits. With City out after a shock loss to third tier Wigan Athletic, fans may expect that they emerge victorious as the new favourites to lift the trophy. United however, first must negotiate a quarter-final clash with Brighton and Hove Albion: Not by any means a straightforward task. Don’t be fooled by last weeks uncharacteristic showing away at Everton-Albion are now eleventh, seven points clear of the relegation zone, and were seven games unbeaten in the Premier League and FA Cup prior to their subpar 2-0 defeat.
Shrewd additions in January has given Chris Hughton far more scope to make changes, £14 million forward Jurgen Locadia has two goals in three appearances since joining from PSV. His first coming on his debut in the last round of the FA Cup, where Brighton fielded a strong team against Coventry, especially given that Hughton made nine changes from the league game against Stoke a week prior. Featuring Locadia, a Premier League title winner in Leonardo Ulloa, Netherlands international Tim Krul and Championship player of the season Anthony Knockaert-suddenly Albion have a strong second-string eleven, after being criticised for not bringing in a forward in the summer transfer window.
Despite bringing in further attacking options, no one could have anticipated the phenomenal form of Glen Murray. Now on 13 for the season, Murray has scored the same number of Premier League goals as Tammy Abraham, Dele Alli and Jermain Defoe combined-prompting questions of an England call up. Likely to be on the bench at Old Trafford, the 34-year-old may still have a say in the latter stages of the game, after scoring a 89th minute winner to send Brighton through against Middlesbrough in the 4th round of the FA Cup, in the 87th minute in the round before against fierce rivals Crystal Palace.
Although United came away from the earlier league fixture against Brighton victorious, the result was not an accurate reflection of the game, even at 1-0. Albion were organised, disciplined and looked extremely dangerous on the counter. Desperately unlucky not to have been ahead after Anthony Knockaert and Pascal Gross both went close after getting behind the United defence, Brighton were dealt a sucker punch in the 66th minute. Ashley Young’s hit and hope attempt from 20 yards was blocked by Lewis Dunk, and inexplicably looped over keeper Mat Ryan into the net. Mourinho will be hoping for this kind of luck this week, but certainly knows a similar level of performance to last time will surely not be rewarded.
Speaking after the league win, Mourinho admitted “What Chris [Hughton] and Brighton deserved was more than the result they got. They played really well. When they had the ball they were dangerous on the counter-attack. I thought Brighton were very, very good. Many congratulations to them.”
Though one of the stand-out performances of the season, Hughton will be hoping for an improvement on the result. Asked if a psychological barrier had been broken after taking their first points against one of the top six in Arsenal, Hughton said: “Yes, I probably didn’t think that before. More importantly, if you’d said to me at the start of the season we’d stay up with a certain number of points but not beat any of the top six, we’d have settled for that. But that (win) will do us the world of good.”
Chris Hughton’s answer is indicative of his calmness throughout the season. During a nervy campaign that now approaches the climax, a mere ten points separates Everton in 9th and Stoke in 19th. In amongst all the drama, a cool head has guided Brighton to potentially their highest ever finish in the top flight, in their first ever season as a Premier League team. He deserves immense credit, not just for what he’s achieved but also the manner in which he has done so, showing humility and respect while so many desperately push mind games and frenzied touchline antics.
Even after a disappointing defeat away at Goodison Park, with so many teams in the mire, Hughton will be quietly confident of survival-all the worse for United and their cup hopes. Going into the game Albion have been afforded a level of freedom to look to the cup, particularly with the aforementioned luxury a deeper squad with quality in all areas. United need to get it right on the day, with the game to go to extra time and penalties if it ends as a draw. With home advantage, Mourinho’s men should have enough-but Brighton will not make it easy.