Manchester United seek a third-straight victory over lower-league opposition in this season’s FA Cup when they travel to Deepdale to take on Preston North End in Monday’s fifth round matchup. Louis van Gaal’s side have so far labored to a victory over League One Yeovil Town, before requiring a replay to get past League Two minnows Cambridge United. Next up is a Preston team riding high in League One and in buoyant mood after three-straight wins.
“I have already described that we have to play for the third time a lower team, and you know the world is against you, the environment is against you because everyone is with the underdog,” Van Gaal said, reports BBC Sport. “It is more difficult to accept but it's like that. However, the chance that you can survive is higher because you are playing against lower qualities. But you have to beat the team with better motivation in other circumstances and in the atmosphere where everyone is against you.”
United’s struggles in the FA Cup have mirrored their form in the league. Despite performances that have attracted much criticism, Van Gaal has led the side to third place in the Premier League and with a quarterfinal spot in the FA Cup now in sight. And while even he was critical of his team’s first-half showing in an unconvincing 3-1 win over Burnley last week, he remains relaxed.
“I’m looking to our process and then I am disappointed that we play in that way, and I said that,” he explained in his press conference on Friday. “But we have another match to show that we are still in our process and positive. When you see the results, it’s not bad.”
Van Gaal faces several fitness concerns ahead of Monday’s encounter. Phil Jones and Daley Blind were forced off against Burnley and remain doubts to return, while Robin van Persie is also carrying a knock. Meanwhile, Michael Carrick’s comeback has been delayed after the midfielder suffered a setback.
Preston have already come through four rounds to get to this stage, including wins over Championship side Norwich City and recent cup giant-killing specialists Sheffield United. The Lancashire outfit has been going well in the league, too, and currently sit among the playoff places, in fourth. Going up against the might of Manchester United clearly presents a very different challenge, yet in manager Simon Grayson they have someone with experience of upsetting the Premier League giants. Five years ago Grayson was manager of then League One side Leeds United when they won 1-0 at Old Trafford in the FA Cup third round.
“Every time I go to Leeds people remind me about it,” Grayson said, according to Sky Sports. “It's a different football club, different personnel, but I'll draw from the experience. What a great feeling it was to win at Old Trafford that day. You don't get the opportunity to do that very often and I want to try to replicate it if possible. You have to have that belief that you can do it.”
Prediction: Manchester United were as bad as they’ve been all season against Burnley, especially in the opening half. Despite now having had time to bed in his new signings, it is painfully clear that Van Gaal is not maximizing the talent at his disposal. Particularly baffling is the continued decision to play Wayne Rooney in midfield, while an ill-fitting partnership of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao toils up front. United have not impressed in either of their FA Cup matches away at lower-league opposition so far and, against an in-form and defensively solid Preston, it is likely to be a similar scenario on Monday. A draw and another replay for United is a definite possibility, although the Premier League quality may just be enough to prevail after another uncomfortable evening.
Preston 1-2 Manchester United
Kickoff time: 2:45 p.m. EST
TV channel: Fox Sports 1