Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha could come back to haunt Man Utd, while even victory at Wembley should not keep Louis van Gaal in a job at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal’s selection posers
While Alan Pardew has a squad in rude health – with the exception of Joe Ledley – Van Gaal has a number of decisions to make over the side he fields at Wembley.
It remains unclear who will win United’s left-back lottery this week but the midfield is Van Gaal’s greatest dilemma.
Wayne Rooney won the Man of the Match award alongside Michael Carrick in a deep-lying midfield role for United’s non-event of a win against Bournemouth. But with Marouane Fellaini available again following suspension, Van Gaal will likely revert to type and select the big Belgian for his physical presence, regardless of his lack of mobility or passing range.
With Morgan Schneiderlin also fit after illness and keen to prove a point up against Yohan Cabaye after the Palace midfielder earned a place in France’s Euro 2016 squad, Van Gaal may opt to pair the dogged former Saint alongside serial sinner Fellaini.
If Rooney is shifted forward, then Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard could be disappointed. Mata has had a productive season, playing in every Premier League game and would most likely get the nod, leaving Lingard in reserve should United require more pace later in the game.
Wide boys can hurt United’s makeshift full-backs
Palace’s greatest threat will undoubtedly come from the flanks, with Pardew ready to unleash Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha on whoever Van Gaal opts for in the full-back positions.
Zaha, of course, has a point to prove. Palace’s player of the year endured a nightmare spell at Old Trafford, where he failed to convince David Moyes and Van Gaal that he was worth even a single Premier League start. Van Gaal opted to sell Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing for the Red Devils back to his hometown club, where Zaha has begun to thrive once more in the comfort of his own environment.
The Ivory Coast-born winner has scored two goals and recorded five assists in 34 Premier League games this season under Pardew, and he will be fresh to face his former employers having not been involved Palace’s final three games of the season.
It is not clear yet who will be given the job of stopping Zaha. Much to the annoyance of many United fans, Van Gaal has picked Marcos Rojo at left-back for much of the run-in, though the Argentina defender missed the final game of the season due to injury. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is likely to find himself back on the bench, with Rojo set for testing afternoon up against a hungry Zaha.
Defending is not one of Zaha’s strengths but his unpredictability in United’s half could help Palace deal with the threat of Anthony Martial. Rojo will likely need help in dealing with Zaha, with the burden falling on United’s French star to lend his full-back at hand. Of course, Zaha will need to be alert in the opposite scenario, unless Joel Ward could be in for a torrid evening at Wembley.
Zaha is unlikely to be pinned to one touchline, with the 23-year-old able to swap with Bolasie to great effect. The tricky, unpredictable fliers could both face somewhat makeshift full-backs in Rojo and Antonio Valencia and service for Palace’s forwards could be plentiful if Zaha and Bolasie’s decision making matches their dribbling talent. Whether the Eagles can capitalise on what they create is another matter…
Same old Palace, same old United
Of the two league meetings this season, the Halloween stalemate at Selhurst Park is far more likely to provide a glimpse of what we might expect at Wembley, rather than United’s 2-0 win at Old Trafford exactly a month before the cup final date.
It was at Selhurst Park that the fans’ frustrations with Van Gaal really began to show. “We’re Man United, we want to attack,” was the cry from the away end as United served up their third consecutive 0-0 draw. Despite dominating the possession they mustered only one shot on target, with Palace the more threatening side on the break.
Zaha and Bolasie caused panic in the United defence, but as so often this season, Palace’s finishing let them down.
Over six months on, both United and Palace are still suffering from the same problems. The destiny of the FA Cup hinges on whichever side can find a fix on the day.
Can a win save Van Gaal?
No. At least, it shouldn’t.
Quite simply, United have gone backwards this season, falling again out of the Champions League places, and a first cup final victory in 12 years cannot mask their deterioration.
The fans want a change; the current squad is said to have had enough; and the list of targets seemingly unwilling to move to play under Van Gaal appears to grow by the day.
Lifting the cup at Wembley would be a triumphant departure for Van Gaal before he shuffles off to retire in the sun in Portugal. Ed Woodward seems desperate not to pull the trigger on the man he brought to Old Trafford and the United chief executive appears to be pinning his hopes on Van Gaal jumping with a trophy before being pushed.
The only outcome for Van Gaal hanging on the result at Wembley on Saturday should be whether he can leave Old Trafford during the following week with his head held high or if the Dutchman suffers an inglorious end to a stellar management career.
Check out our FA Cup final preview for Betsafe, which features thoughts from Ray Parlour and Harry Redknapp.