Not even a FA Cup clash with relative minnows can take a low profile for Manchester United and Crawley hit the headlines when their “official” FA Cup commemorative song for the occasion was ruined by one of their supporters making Munich references in the video.
To their credit, Crawley have since banned the offender for life, but it goes to show that even this non-league club, with no prior meeting or cause to have grievance with United, can have an attitude that they want to take it to the Premier League leaders. It’s nothing new for United; regardless of stature, every club treats a game with us as a Cup Final, but recent history tells us that we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Sure, supporters of both clubs were probably rubbing their hands in glee; Crawley with the prospect of visiting one of football’s great arenas and United supporters with the arrogant but inevitable feeling of a quarter final place all but certain. Upon sober reflection, however, even a team almost 100 places below us have the potential to cause us problems if we take them for granted. We had trouble at home against Exeter in 2005 and a year later Burton Albion took the tie to a replay too.
7Cantonas.com contributor and Luton Town keeper Kevin Pilkington was on loan at Mansfield when Crawley scored 3 goals in the last 20 minutes to cap a 4-1 win. Pilkington said to the BBC that he was “gutted” at the time but can appreciate their strengths with reflection. “Crawley are a very good side,” says Kevin. “I have seen them close up twice this season, once from the bench and once playing against them. They are a very physical side and put a lot of effort into their performances. That’s not taking anything away from their technical abilities, because they have some very good players. They have a manager who demands everything from them every time they step onto a pitch and that showed at the weekend when they were 2 nil down but came back to win 3-2.”
That spirit is something our own fans are all too familiar with from their own team but it’s worth noting that United have seemed to have a bit of bad luck in recent times in the competition too! In 1997, when Scholes scored in the 89th minute, somehow Wimbledon still managed to equalise and then knocked us out in the replay. In 2001 there was the infamous Paolo Di Canio goal, in 2005 we battered Arsenal only to lose on penalties and in 2008 Portsmouth’s invisible forcefield was essentially the only stumbling block between United and a second treble.
Those Cup scares against Exeter and Burton (and the recent game at Southampton) should serve as a reminder that United ought to seek to start strong and then ease off if the opportunity allows. Kevin’s opinion goes along with that theory; as well as identifying a danger man, he feels Crawley will be confident. “The danger man for them is Matt Tubbs who has been very successful since moving from Salisbury, I think he has scored 26 goals so far this season,” Kevin explains. “They are a big side so I would expect them to get the ball forward fairly quick and try to pressure United in their own half. I expect them to give United a good game but I’m sure United will have too much quality.”
Starting strong is a tactic that wasn’t really employed against Exeter and Burton. A fair mixture of talent and experience is generally the tactic employed but it’s a balance that needs to be struck carefully or else there is the chance of it spectacularly backfiring. Crawley are high flying and as Kevin rightly says will be full of confidence and, just as importantly, up for the biggest game of their careers.
Before naming my selection I’ll first show the line ups from the games against Exeter and Burton. It would, with all due respect, be overkill to launch into some deep tactical analysis, if only for the terribly casual patronisation that any eleven United put on the field should be equipped to beat a non league team. Against Exeter, in the first game, we started with 7 players that would be classed as “inexperienced”. There’s a case for Djemba-Djemba but as a £3.5m signing I think it’s fair to class him as a fairly established player. The relatively experienced defence (feels odd to be labelling Pique among the wet behind the ears guys!) was never really threatened but the lack of cohesion going forward spoke volumes. United’s substitutes were all established attack minded players, and couldn’t make a difference to the resolute visitors.
Howard, P Neville, Spector, Brown, Pique, Djemba-Djemba, Miller, David Jones, Eagles, Richardson, Bellion (subs Ronaldo, Scholes, Smith)
The replay saw United go with an under-strength but significantly more experienced team. Only Liam Miller survived in the front lines and United were able to ease to a 2-0 win.
Howard, P Neville, G Neville, O’Shea, Fortune, Ronaldo, Djemba-Djemba, Miller, Scholes, Giggs, Rooney (subs Fletcher, Saha, Silvestre)
At Burton in 2006 there’s a similar story. Fairly strong defence married with youth further forward. Maybe at that stage in their development, it’s unfair to pin it on David Jones, Richardson and Rossi, but the fact is we didn’t score and rarely looked like doing so.
Howard, Bardsley, Brown, Pique, Silvestre, Solskjaer, Jones, O’Shea, Richardson, Rossi, Saha (subs Ronaldo, Rooney)
We freshened it up for the replay and won convincingly, but United simply can’t afford to under-estimate Crawley and invite any possibility whatsoever of a replay. Thankfully the team have got a decent record of early starts at Old Trafford as of late and I think the timing of the fixture – mid February, as opposed to early January – will be enough to convince Sir Alex that a) it might be a better idea to give fringe players some time, who might be thrown in to the team due to an injury and b) to end, rather than start, with two or three bright young players.
Josh King, Paul Pogba and Ravel Morrison are all names tipped to play some part while Oliver’s Gill and Norwood might feel unlucky to not feature. And while one of these names may well start, I think United’s back line will be as experienced as you would expect for this fixture.
Solid, reliable, no risks. O’Shea’s selection in the derby last weekend may be a sign that Sir Alex will be using him and Rafael in turns, so the young Brazilian may play here with the Champions League coming up next week. However, siding with the opinion that Rafael is first choice, I think O’Shea will start. O’Shea, Brown and Fabio are all fairly flexible and though I feel these will be the likely choices it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them line up slightly differently.
In midfield and attack I think this will be our 6. With Owen injured, Bebe should be propelled into the first team again and the only question mark for me lies with Giggs’ possible inclusion. I think he will start, to add some identity alongside Gibson and Anderson (neither of whom I expect to start in France) with Nani kept back for next week and (in my opinion) either a 4-4-2 or Rooney working the left hand side. A conventional 442 –
Or a 4-2-3-1 –
However, Fergie might keep Giggs back too; meaning another midfielder would become available. In that case I think Carrick would be the next player given time in this game, in either a 442 (with Anderson wide)
Or as part of a midfield 3.
Looking at the 4 different possibilities more or less rules out the chance of United fielding a Morrison or Pogba from the start; as Ferguson can afford to choose XI senior players and expect to pick a completely different XI against Marseille, with the luxury (hopefully) of keeping Anderson and Giggs fresh by bringing them off and giving a couple of youngsters their big chance. Of course, it’d be romantic to start with them and history suggests that we might well start with 3 or 4, but history also tells us that placing attacking responsibility on 3 or 4 youngsters from the start doesn’t really work against a team more than happy to take a draw.
It’s a results business and we’re approaching the business end of the season (clichétastic!) ; Sir Alex values time and preparation, and keeping his players fresh above all else at this stage and it’s for these reasons I believe he’ll look for United to end the fairytale for Crawley early on.