Confirmation finally arrived on Tuesday that the essential goal for Manchester United this season had slipped away. On Saturday, Louis van Gaal must hope that not only does his team clinch the consolation prize, but that it proves enough to keep him employed at Old Trafford next season.
Manchester United beat Bournemouth 3-1 in their delayed final game of the Premier League season at Old Trafford, falling a long way short of the preposterous 19-goal victory needed to overhaul Manchester City and claim the final spot in the Champions League. Now all that is left is the chance to win the FA Cup by beating Crystal Palace in Saturday’s final.
Yet, regardless of what happens at Wembley, it cannot be denied that a fifth-place Premier League finish represents a significant disappointment. After all, the club began the season with third place and automatic qualification for the Champions League group phase as the minimum requirement, and a title challenge anticipated after another summer of big spending.
A large section of the supporters certainly feel this season, in which Manchester United were also ousted from the Champions League and Europa League at an early stage, has been a failure. When Van Gaal addressed the crowd to thank them for their “unconditional support” after the final whistle on Tuesday, many boos could be heard. Yet the veteran Dutch coach believes that the issue is one of fans not adjusting their expectations since the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson came to an end.
"Of course [I understand the disappointment], because I have also said that the expectation is very high, especially the fans are expecting a lot,” he told Sky Sports. “But I think these expectations are much too high, and we are a team in transition, and that I have said when I started here. Maybe I have to bring over the message much clearer than I have done."
When asked whether his job was now at risk, as has been so often speculated, Van Gaal replied simply that he has a three-year contract and expects to stay. Yet he also wouldn't elaborate on whether winning the FA Cup was necessary for him to keep his position.
For a club of Manchester United’s stature, it would be somewhat foolhardy for the manager’s fate to depend on one game in a competition that no longer features near the top of major clubs’ list of priorities.
And yet there will also undeniably be an emotional jolt in Van Gaal’s favor should he deliver the trophy to Old Trafford. That is a particularly true given Manchester United haven’t lifted the FA Cup since 2004. One only has to look at the explosion of joy among the players and fans at Anthony Martial finding the back of the net in the dying seconds of the semifinal win over Everton to see the effect success in the competition can still have.
And Van Gaal may well have a thought that triumph in the FA Cup could be the turning point in his reign, just as it was for Manchester United’s greatest ever manager. As hard is it is to think of now, Ferguson was under pressure before winning the FA Cup in 1990 before subsequently going on to win 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups.
Of course, there is no suggestion that the 64-year-old Van Gaal will have anything like the same longevity, never mind success. But he will think it can represent a change in the narrative all the same. And comparisons with the success 26 years ago will only be exacerbated by the identity of Manchester United’s opponents in the final this year.
In 1990, Crystal Palace were again the opponents and came agonizingly close to causing an upset when taking a 3-2 lead in extra time, only for United to equalize seven minutes from the end. In those days, it meant a replay was required, which United won 1-0 in a far more sedate affair.
The links between that final and this one are forged even deeper by the fact that current Crystal Palace manager Alan Pardew was a key part of Palace’s midfield in both the final and the replay in 1990. Pardew was happy to talk up that history ahead of Palace’s semifinal against Watford, particularly the fact that he had scored the winner in the club’s 1990 semifinal against Liverpool. He even went as far to utilize the same corner-kick routine Palace prospered from back then, which led to Yannick Bolasie opening the scoring against Watford before Connor Wickham went onto grab a second-half winner.
Pardew’s task now is to ensure Crystal Palace succeed where he fell just short as a player 26 years ago and in turn deliver what could be the final blow to his counterpart at Old Trafford.
Prediction: Neither side comes into the final in the best of form. Crystal Palace have won just twice in their last 21 Premier League fixtures, surviving relegation by just four points. Manchester United, meanwhile, labored to a win over Norwich before crucially throwing away three points at West Ham. While they came good in the second half to beat Bournemouth on Tuesday, the rearranged fixture will not have helped their preparations for the final.
In Bolasie, former United winger Wilfried Zaha and Yohan Cabaye, Palace have some quality players who can hurt Manchester United. Yet finishing the chances that trio creates remains a major hurdle. And, while it may not be pretty, United should do enough to win, just at they did in a 2-0 victory over Palace a month ago.
Predicted score: Manchester United 2-1 Crystal Palace
Kickoff time: 12:30 p.m. EDT