Man United reach FA Cup fifth round in style by routing Cambridge United
MANCHESTER -- Two quick first half goals from Juan Mata and Marcos Rojo put Manchester United on track for a 3-0 win over Cambridge United in their FA Cup fourth-round replay. Here are three quick points from Old Trafford.
1. The FA Cup is there for the taking
Darren Fletcher's deadline-day departure to West Bromwich Albion didn't just end the Manchester United career of one of Old Trafford's favourite servants. It meant they now have a squad without a single player who has won the FA Cup as a United employee. That could well change this season.
In a competition deprived of four of the Premier League's top six, they have a glorious chance to secure the first silverware of Louis van Gaal's reign. United's journey to the last 16 has scarcely been emphatic but unlike many of their peers, at least they have progressed.
This 3-0 win against Cambridge means United will continue a Cup run that consists exclusively of meetings with teams from the third and fourth tiers -- they travel to Preston North End (who defeated Sheffield United 3-1) in the fifth round. Thus far, however, they have made heavy weather of overcoming their inferiors.
Cambridge are 79 league places below them in the league ladder, but it took 115 minutes across two games, not to mention a 20-minute delay to kick-off to allow fans held up in traffic to get into Old Trafford, before Van Gaal's side finally scored against the underdogs.
Marouane Fellaini won a header at the back post, affording Juan Mata the simplest of finishes for the first goal. Marcos Rojo then opened his United account with a header from Robin van Persie's chipped cross. Van Persie should have added a third, missing three opportunities. Instead his replacement James Wilson did, showing his sharpness with a fine finish late in the game.
Nevertheless, it is to Cambridge's credit that they weren't thrashed. They came out of these two games having greatly enhanced their reputations. Goalkeeper Chris Dunn made fine stops from Van Persie and Angel Di Maria while Michael Nelson, Tom Champion and Ryan Donaldson, the stars of the stalemate at the Abbey Stadium, all acquitted themselves well again.
2. Van Gaal springs another surprise
If David Moyes was too predictable, perhaps the problem with his successor is that he is too unpredictable. Van Gaal is a man who has complete faith in his own judgement. Ideas that strike others as odd seem entirely logical to him, providing they are his own. He configured his team in idiosyncratic fashion in a 4-1-4-1 formation that sometimes resembled a 4-1-5 with a gap where a midfield is usually found.
It was not just the shape that appeared unusual. Wayne Rooney, a player who savours being at the heart of the action, was stranded on the right touchline whereas it is five-and-a-half years since Cristiano Ronaldo's departure ended his stint as an ersatz winger. On the other flank, meanwhile, was the still more unlikely sight of Fellaini, a giraffe grazing in the left-wing territory across which Ryan Giggs used to glide.
An instant when Fellaini crossed for Mata brought the thought that it really should have been the other way around and, understandably, the Belgian was more effective when he chose to roam infield. Indeed, he troubled Cambridge in the penalty area, playing a part in the first two goals.
If there was some method to Van Gaal's madness, it hinted he was almost paranoid about the size of the players a smaller club fielded. He had noted Cambridge's height before and after the initial tie and, by fielding a back four of defenders who can all operate as centre-backs, plus Van Persie and the recalled Fellaini, he had six tall outfield players to combat any possible aerial menace.
He also chose his taller goalkeeper. Nevertheless, it represented another oddity that Victor Valdes, a triple Champions League winner, was still denied a debut against the side currently sitting 14th in Football League Two. It is all the stranger as there has to be a chance the Spaniard will be United's first-choice goalkeeper next season.
3. Elliott comes so close
History repeated itself. For the second time in as many rounds there was a moment that could have changed a career, propelled a lower-league forward to prominence and, perhaps, condemned Van Gaal to a defeat more ignominious than any Moyes oversaw.
Except both missed. For Yeovil's Kieffer Moore in the third round of the FA Cup, read Cambridge's Tom Elliott in the fourth. Moore's miss was glaring, Elliott's rather more understandable, but twice United could have been trailing to lowly outfits. Twice a giant-killing could have been on the cards.
Only 50 seconds had elapsed when Elliott latched on to a misplaced pass from Daley Blind, accelerated into the United box, set himself and curled a shot against the post. While United would have had ample time to respond, he was inches away from perhaps etching his name into FA Cup folklore.
Elliott would have been a suitably improbable candidate. His career began at Leeds (for whom he never scored) and his CV incorporates stints at Macclesfield, Bury, Rotherham, Hamilton, Stockport and Cambridge, six of the game's more distant outposts.
A comparison can be drawn with Yeovil's Moore, formerly of Truro City and Dorchester Town. Strikers who have spent time in non-league could have put their sides ahead against the 20-times champions of England. It was not to be but at least Cambridge can take something from this tie: They will bank around 1.5 million pounds. For once, their manager Richard Money, otherwise known as "Dickie Dosh," seems aptly named.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.