There is no such thing as certainty when it comes to Manchester United nowadays. They were expected to roll over Aston Villa comfortably, but that fixture was anything but comfortable. The Claret and Blues hit the post and Gestede very nearly scored in the dying minutes of that match. Next came Palace, a once combative team now flirting with the relegation zone. This midweek fixture was slightly more relaxed as Van Gaal reverted to a 4-1-4-1 and let his players express their attacking ingenuity, finishing the game with a clean sheet and two goals. Confidence has grown over the past weeks, but the Dutchman is still under the microscope. While a top four finish is United’s main objective this season, the Red Devils have almost stumbled into the semi-finals of the FA Cup, without prioritising it over League or European fixtures.
The road has not been an exceedingly tough one: they scraped a lucky 1-0 win over Sheffield United, comfortably beat a struggling Derby side 3-1, rolled over Shrewsbury 3-0 and managed to clinch a replay win against West Ham. Everton were not expected to really test the Reds when they travelled to Wembley; the Toffees have significantly underperformed in the League this season, sitting eleventh with a team full of talent. It has been a bit of a shock that Martínez has clung on to his job for this long. Nevertheless, like United, it has been almost impossible to predict their performances this season. Surprisingly, Everton had not conceded a single goal in the competition going into this fixture.
United lined up in an odd 4-1-4-1 formation, with Rooney and Fellaini partnered in the attacking midfield role, but had clearly been instructed to swap box-to-box duties. Lingard’s energy was preferred to Mata’s creativity on the right and Martial drifted up and down the left wing with his usual elegance. Carrick deputised for the rested Schneiderlin at the base of midfield, while the promising Fosu-Mensah was given a start at right back with Smalling, Blind and Rojo making up the rest of the defence. Rashford took up the lone striking role once again.
The game started frighteningly quick; Martial tore down the left and almost set up a chance before Lukaku skipped past David De Gea and passed the ball towards the empty net, only for captain Rooney to get back and clear off the line. United gained some composure and scored the opening goal soon after. In classic Fellaini style, the lanky Belgian scuffed the ball into the turf after Martial’s mazy run set him up on a plate. Often the scapegoat of United’s failures since the departure of Sir Alex, the former Evertonian made the effort of pointing to the name on the back of his shirt in celebration, reminding the fans that he’s not all that bad. In fact, he probably had one of his best games in a United shirt.
The Toffees didn’t really look like threatening De Gea’s goal until after the break. Martínez must have given his men one hell of a team talk because the team which came back on the pitch was ten times better than the team which left it at the interval. Barkley and Lukaku dropped slightly deeper, picked up balls in space and ran directly at the Reds’ back four, eventually causing some problems. After an excellent pass from Lennon to pick out Barkely, the English youngster was (debatably) fouled by Fosu-Mensah in the penalty area. Lukaku stepped up to take it, hoping to turn his below par performance around, however, things only got worse.
The striker’s firmly hit shot was denied by the outstretched De Gea, who saved United’s season for the hundredth time. Everton, although, did manage to equalise not long after. The introduction of Deulofeu caused Rojo a problem at left back; his quick feet were too much to handle and his cross following his humiliation of Rojo was unfortunately deflected into the net by Smalling in the 74th minute. The following 15 minutes was a nervous state of affairs: end-to-end, chance after chance was made, yet both goalkeepers produced fine saves and neither side could find the back of the net.
In the final five, Van Gaal hauled off Fellaini and replaced him with Herrera, who had an important impact. In the 92nd minute, Martial picked up the ball on the left wing near the halfway line and played a one-two with Rashford. He then rolled the ball to Herrera who stumbled, swivelled and poked the ball back to Martial who raced towards Robles before coolly slotting the ball past the onrushing keeper. Celebration ensued, as the Frenchman, deemed a “waste of money” by the Mirror back in September, yet again provided a classic United moment, up there with his debut goal against Liverpool. The match finished 2-1 and the Red Devils went through to the final of the FA Cup to face either Crystal Palace or Watford.
Even before the game, not many United fans were confident of silverware this season, but Louis Van Gaal did what he does best: pulling out a result when his back is against the wall. No matter which team United face in the final, they will be clear favourites. However, with the top four unlikely, the real question is whether Louis Van Gaal will retain his job next season if the FA Cup is delivered, and would the fans want the Dutchman still there? The most likely answer is no, because of the importance of Champions League qualification with Adidas’ kit deal. But, if Louis was to win the FA Cup in his last ever match and retire the Old Trafford job, he would leave with his head held high and with the Red Faithful’s respect. A win-win situation.