Manchester United cruised into the FA Cup fifth round at the second time of asking after goals from Juan Mata, Marcos Rojo and James Wilson gave them a 3-0 victory over Cambridge United at Old Trafford. After a goalless draw in the original fourth round match against the lowest-ranked team left in the competition, the Premier League giants effectively made sure of getting the job done in the replay with two goals in seven first-half minutes to set up a meeting with Preston North End.
For League Two Cambridge, simply earning a replay against one of the richest clubs in the world and thus a financial windfall that will do much to aid the redevelopment of their home Abbey Stadium has been an achievement that will live long in the memory. And they came desperately close to upsetting the odds once more in the opening minute at Old Trafford. A mistake by Daley Blind allowed Tom Elliott to race through on goal, but United’s blushes were spared when the striker’s shot came off the outside of the post.
Gradually United found their feet. Louis van Gaal again started with four at the back, although he made five changes from the morale-boosting weekend win over Leicester City. But his lineup showed once more that he isn’t afraid to make the kinds of decisions that his predecessor David Moyes would likely have avoided, fearing a backlash from both the media and his own squad. Marouane Fellaini began alongside Robin van Persie up front, while Radamel Falcao watched on from the bench and Wayne Rooney continued in midfield. There was also a place in an unfamiliar right-back role for teenager Paddy McNair.
Both selections paid dividends for the opening goal in the 25th minute. McNair kick-started a quick breakaway with a fine ball inside, before Fellaini headed Angel di Maria’s cross back across the danger zone for Mata to poke in off the underside of the crossbar. McNair was impressive throughout in getting forward down the right. And with record signing Di Maria showing his quality on the left of a midfield diamond, it was United’s width that did the most damage.
It was a corner that provided the second and decisive goal. Fellaini was given the chance to chest the ball down and fire off a shot at the back post. And while Cambridge blocked the initial effort, the ball fell for Van Persie, who, with the outside of his left foot, chipped a delightful pass up for Rojo to head home his first goal for Manchester United since his summer transfer from Sporting Lisbon.
Helped by a Cambridge side now leaving gaps at the back, United began playing with some of the fluidity that was sorely missing at Cambridge’s Abbey Stadium. After a wonderful early cross-field pass by Di Maria, Rooney mistimed a volley with a chance to provide a stunning goal. Di Maria, again, and Mata provided passes of similar quality in the second half to give Van Persie the chance to get on the score sheet, but on both occasions he was denied by Cambridge goalkeeper Chris Dunn. While a positive, comfortable evening for the home side, the continued lack of sharpness displayed by Van Persie remains a concern.
There were no such problems for the Dutch striker’s replacement. On the pitch just seven minutes, having been brought on ahead of Falcao, 19-year-old Wilson rounded out the scoring with 17 minutes remaining. Ander Herrera, who continues to miss out on a starting place regardless of how Van Gaal configures his midfield, provided the assists with an incisive pass forward and Wilson wasted no time in firing off a forceful low left-footed shot from 20 yards that bounced over the outstretched hands of the disappointed Dunn.
Cambridge, none the less, leave with their heads held high and a night to long remember, while United can prepare for a trip to Preston on Feb. 16. And, with Manchester City and Chelsea already dumped out, they will surely have real ambitions of the FA Cup providing the first trophy of Van Gaal’s reign.