|United players join fans to celebrate Anthony Martial's sensational winner in stoppage time|
It was on the 21st of May 1990 that Sir Alex Ferguson won his first FA Cup for Manchester United to (allegedly) keep his job as manager of the club after a difficult four year start. It was on the 21st of May 2008 that United clinched a third European title in Moscow in the season that marked 50 years since the Munich Air Disaster. It will be on the 21st of May 2016 that Louis van Gaal could potentially salvage some pride as manager of the club if by the end of that day, United lift a record equalling 12th FA Cup at Wembley.
On Saturday evening, Manchester United were in the (unusual) position of going into a season defining game as favourites.Roberto Martinez has struggled to progress from his initial success at the Merseyside club so much so that there was no gusto in the team when on the otherwise fiery occasion that is the Merseyside derby. There was doubt as to whether Everton would rouse themselves in a Cup semifinal if they couldn't manage it in a game against their old enemy.
For United, the dominance of their play, especially in the first half was nothing surprising. Indeed, United almost always hog the ball. The question was whether the club would rise above its profligacy in front of goal and make their chances count. In the end, United nearly paid for coming away at halftime with just the one goal lead after dominating. On another day, that Lukaku penalty goes in and heads drop. It has been such a familiar theme all season that the expectation of United recovering from adversity has since evaporated.
Incredibly though, Anthony Martial was on hand to score in Fergie time a sensational winner to deservedly send United through to a 19th FA Cup final. On the whole, it was one of the better performances for the club this season (the bar is so low) and further evidence of a burgeoning understanding from the front three of Martial, Rashford and or Jesse Lingard. Again, and unlike most of the season, several chances were fashioned on the back of the speed of the attack, allowing for confidence to thrive in the team.
Individually, Martial stood out for his craft and industry that resulted in a first half assist and a second half goal but credible mentions must go to Marouanne Fellaini who opened the scoring and made a last ditch interception to prevent an almost certain goal. The Belgian built on his outstanding performance against West Ham United in the quarter-final. He certainly does his bit to give the manager more reason to keep starting him ahead of what we know are more accomplished midfielders in Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin.
And what about David De Gea who kept out a third straight left footed penalty. Robin van Persie, Leighton Baines and now Lukaku have tried beating the Spaniard on his right hand side but all have failed. That was a crucial stop in the circumstances. In a season when the the outfield players have had all sorts of problems, his fellow professionals have recognised him as the hardest goalkeeper to beat in the league. He deserves his place in the PFA team of the year.
It is incredible that even at this stage of the season, with four games to play, Louis van Gaal can still technically defend himself infront of the board by claiming that he is still within reach of his targets. If the club wins each of its 4 league games, they make the Champions League places. Added to the fact that he gets to lead the club out at Wembley for an FA Cup final, you understand the fear gripping most fans about the possibility that he could yet stick around for his third and final season. The smoke about the place suggests that he will not survive beyond the summer, but stranger things have happened.
Ultimately though, a trip to Wembley to contest silverware is one of the hopes fans of many clubs carry from the start of the season. It is poetic reward to fans who have persevered through a dull season with less than a handful of highs to write home about. Save for the dead end that was the Sheffield United game at Old Trafford, the football in the competition has been pretty good throughout. More of that please at Wembley on a day you can be certain will be an occasion of joy for Reds.