Manchester United will attempt to salvage something from their tumultuous season — and potentially keep manager Louis van Gaal in a job — in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Crystal Palace.
After failing to qualify for the Champions League for the second time in three years, the Wembley showpiece represents United’s last chance to make good on a campaign of stagnant football and simmering fan dissent.
Van Gaal was booed as he addressed supporters following Tuesday’s 3-1 home win over Bournemouth and although victory against Palace would give United their first significant piece of silverware since Alex Ferguson left in 2013, reports suggest that his days at Old Trafford are numbered regardless.
Despite his difficulties, Van Gaal has his eyes on winning and is not particularly concerned about it being pleasing on the eye.
“Of course the starting point is to perform well, to win beautiful…to score beautiful goals,” said Van Gaal.
“But a 1-0 win, for me, is also enough because winning is the most important thing in a final. When you lose you have nothing.”
The Dutchman also hinted that for Saturday’s final to be a spectacle, Palace need to play their part.
“You always need two attacking sides, then you always get a fantastic match,” he explained.
“I think they shall defend very small spaces and then counter because they have a lot of speed in attack.”
While United have not won the FA Cup since 2004, when they beat Millwall 3-0 in Cardiff, victory on Saturday would see them equal Arsenal’s tally of 12 successes in the competition — a record they once held outright.
As well as giving Van Gaal a first trophy in English football, it would also enable Wayne Rooney, the captain, and Michael Carrick to claim the only top-level medals that have eluded them during their spells at the club.
Van Gaal already has reason to thank the tournament, for it has provided several melodious moments this season amid the steady background hum of speculation about his future.
Early victories over lower-league sides Sheffield United, Derby County and Shrewsbury Town came during a dismal run of three wins in 13 league games, when criticism of the Dutchman was at its fiercest.
The quarter-final against West Ham United brought both the relief of Anthony Martial’s 83rd-minute equaliser in the first game at Old Trafford and the morale boost of an assured 2-1 victory in the replay.
– History beckons for Palace –
Martial provided another moment to savour in last month’s semi-final against Everton, driving into the box from the left in stoppage time to net a deliriously celebrated winner.
If Van Gaal is looking for positive omens, it will not have escaped his attention that the last under-fire United manager to go into an FA Cup final against Palace with his neck on the line was Ferguson.
Prior to the 1990 final, Ferguson had gone three and a half years without a trophy, but following a gripping 3-3 draw, a solitary goal by left-back Lee Martin earned United a 1-0 victory in the replay.
One of the players who traipsed from the pitch in Palace’s unfamiliar black and yellow change strip was 28-year-old midfielder Alan Pardew, who is now the south London club’s manager.
Pardew etched his name in Palace folklore by netting an extra-time winner against Liverpool in the semi-finals and 26 years later, he is seeking to steer the club to their first major trophy.
Following a strong start to the season, Palace won just two of their final 21 league games, which saw them finish 15th in the Premier League.
But they have shown superb form in the cup, notably eliminating Southampton, Stoke City, Tottenham Hotspur and Watford, and now find themselves on the brink of a historic achievement.
“I feel the weight of the history of not winning something,” Pardew said Friday as the club seek a first major trophy in their 111-year history.
“We take one final which we lost into the game, so this group of players have an opportunity to put something permanent there — a first major trophy for Crystal Palace.
“One or two of these players will never play in a final again and this is an opportunity to get a winner’s medal, which is so hard.”
Aside from Wales midfielder Joe Ledley, who fractured his fibula in the 2-1 league win over Stoke two weeks ago, Pardew has a fully fit squad at his disposal.
Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Morgan Schneiderlin have returned to training for United after brief spells on the sidelines, while Marouane Fellaini is available again after a three-match suspension.