Perhaps it’s damning that this FA Cup fifth round match-up will be remembered more for isolated moments and debates than a decent game of football that saw Manchester United advance to the quarter finals of a competition they should be desperate to win. But between Radamel Falcao’s extended comical squint at the fourth official’s board to confirm that yes, he was being substituted and the sheer swirl of vitriol provoked by Wayne Rooney standing in an offside position for United’s equaliser and tumbling without contact for his penalty, it appeared there were more important things to talk about besides the fact that Louis van Gaal’s side had just booked a date with Arsenal in March. Not that it does the Dutchman a disservice; United were far from their best against Preston North End, as is becoming the norm, but fought back to record their first win from a losing position since the end of 2013.
United’s difficulties at Deepdale were easy to prophesise. The hosts perhaps rightly played the first half on the back foot, squeezing out any traces of space and essentially forcing Van Gaal’s side to scythe through them. Angel Di Maria, United’s best asset in such situations struggled in the face of sheer numbers and all too frequently, after a spark of movement, they would settle into a slow, non-threatening passing rhythm. The Argentine eventually turned to attempts to pick out his colleagues with floated pinpoint passes, and the visitors might have ended the half in front had his delicious delivery for Wayne Rooney been a few inches lower. The England captain almost made contact with Falcao’s cut-back, save for a last-ditch tackle by , as the half ended scattered with what-ifs. At least, in the face of United’s ineffective dominance, the hosts had caused them few issues.
Problem is that this isn’t a club that exudes a sense of security these days. Preston, clearly galvanised by the host’s non-committal prodding seized control of the game shortly after the break. The ease at which the hosts found gaps in the visiting defence was galling, Scott Laird taking advantage of one on United’s right from Joe Garner’s pass to fire home via a deflection from Antonio Valencia. David de Gea might have kept it out on another day, but the ball bounced under the Spaniard and Deepdale erupted.
Recent history has taught us that United do not deal well with falling behind. Before this game, their last recorded comeback having conceded first was a 2-3 victory away to Hull, 14 months ago. Van Gaal will certainly be grateful to Ander Herrera for the Spaniard’s equaliser, then, despite the clear lack of faith that the manager appears to have in him if his time spent warming the bench is anything to go by. But in truth, the Dutchman’s willingness to hook the shadow of Falcao off after another desperately disappointing performance changed the game.
His replacement, Ashley Young offered far more purpose and directness from his position out wide, with Marouane Fellaini pushed up front and away from the midfield he’d been labouring in. It was Young’s pull-back to Herrera that sparked the revival, the Basque native immediately under pressure but still able to curl a purposeful shot beyond an offside (but crucially uninvolved) Rooney and Thorsten Stuckmann’s far post. Complaints immediately arose yet the United skipper hadn’t made any contact with the ball, rendering all grievances redundant.
The timing of the goal, with well over 20 minutes still to play certainly aided the visitors in their quest to avoid further cup blushes and a replay, and a second seemed highly likely given the extent to which United had awoken. Its arrival was preceded by several high crosses to Fellaini, presumably in an attempt to bypass Stuckmann’s gigantic reach. Valencia eventually guided one to the Belgian’s head, and he fired into the roof of the net after his original header was saved. Use of the term ‘renaissance’ is pushing it, but Fellaini has turned into a surprisingly useful back-up plan for Van Gaal when his pref avenues to goal offer dead ends.
From then on, the evening was moderately relaxing, save for a wayward Valencia pass to Callum Robinson, which should have caused far more trouble for De Gea. The Colombian was grateful to see a harmless long-range effort that ended up travelling straight at his goalkeeper’s chest. The clincher came late on, Rooney tumbling without contact as he touched the ball away from the onrushing Stuckmann. The resulting spot-kick sealed an enticing quarter final date with Arsenal at Old Trafford, with the reward a first trip to Wembley for a meaningful game since the 2011 Champions League final.
United have made hard work out of a plethora of supposedly ‘easy’ matches this term; Yeovil, Cambridge, MK Dons and now Preston the latest to cause Van Gaal concern in cup competitions, but at the very least, they remain in with a chance of a first FA Cup in eleven years. That in itself outweighs the negatives, at least for now.