Whatever happens in Saturday’s FA Cup semifinal between Manchester United and Everton, it will provide only limited papering over of the cracks in what has been disappointing seasons for both teams. Yet for both Louis van Gaal and Roberto Martinez a victory could yet be vital to their attempts to remain in their jobs for next season.
The situation is particularly perilous for Everton boss Martinez. Already guaranteed to finish with the worst home record in the club’s top-flight history, Wednesday witnessed a new nadir. In the Merseyside derby against fierce foes Liverpool, an insipid Everton team sunk to a 4-0 defeat at Anfield in a match where defender Ramiro Funes Mori saw a red card for a horror tackle on Divock Origi and fellow defender John Stones taken off suffering from stomach cramps.
Even Martinez, whose habit of remaining uniformly positive despite a season of immense frustration has brought its own criticisms, broke slightly from his usual script to deem it “A horrible, horrible showing.” It was a performance and a night that felt like the end, the point of no return for the man in charge.
There is much to inspire optimism at Goodison Park. The squad is blessed with plenty of talented young players, in Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu and John Stones, while a 49.9 percent stake in the club has just been brought by billionaire Farhad Moshiri. This should be the moment for Everton to start fulfilling the lofty ambitions Martinez continually professes. And yet, basic organizational and defensive flaws have so often seen the team throw away points this season.In a season where Leicester City are heading for the title, the sight of Everton sitting down in 11th place, closer to the relegation zone than the to-four, is a painful one.
It was at Wembley where Martinez won himself the Everton job, when his Wigan Athletic stunned Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final and persuaded chairman Bill Kenwright to appoint him, despite Wigan’s relegation from the Premier League. After another failure of a league season, three years on, Wembley success appears the only thing that can now keep the Spaniard in the job.
For Martinez’s counterpart on Saturday, the FA Cup could similarly bring some much needed cheer, although the consolation of cup success would be a meager one if Manchester United fail to qualify for the Champions League. In a season where a title challenge was expected after further huge investment in playing squad, United have long since bowed out of the running. And Van Gaal’s job continues to be the subject of much speculation, even if he has alleviated some of the pressure in the past week.
Following a triumph in their FA Cup quarterfinal replay at West Ham, Manchester United have won back-to-back Premier League matches to lift themselves within touching distance of the top four. If United were able to sneak into a Champions League position and claim their first silverware since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, and first FA Cup triumph since 2004, then Van Gaal would certainly have a case for why he should remain in charge.
Whether fans of the club would feel the same way is a very different matter. The style of play under Van Gaal has failed to win over supporters brought up on the fast, incisive attacking play of Ferguson, while the propensity to field players out of position has led to mass befuddlement.
But they impressed in beating Crystal Palace 2-0 on Tuesday, with 18-year-old Marcus Rashford again shining and Matteo Darmian scoring with a fine strike to register his first goal for the club. Captain Wayne Rooney is also back in action, giving Van Gaal some welcome selection headaches ahead of the trip to Wembley.
With reason for hope that the season can yet be rescued, Manchester United should certainly head into the semifinal in better spirits. The pressure, though, remains intense on both managers.
G: De Gea
D: Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Darmian
M: Schneiderlin, Carrick
Mata, Rooney, Martial
D: Oviedo, Stones, Besic, Baines
M: McCarthy, Barry
Cleverley, Barkley, Lennon
Prediction: Everton enter the semifinal in dreadful condition. They were a dispirited mess in the Merseyside derby and are it is hard to envisage them being much better on Saturday, particularly given left-backs Leighton Baines and Bryan Oviedo are the only defenders definitely fit to start. Manchester United, meanwhile, while still far from free-flowing, have at least given sign that they are organized and still playing for their manager. United have beaten Everton home and away in the Premier League this season and look set to make it a third victory at Wembley.
Predicted score: Manchester United 2-0 Everton