Saturday’s FA Cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea falls two days short of the 10-year anniversary of their Moscow Champions League final, an edgy epic settled by the nervous and the nerveless in that rain-sodden penalty shootout. For those who remember the timeline that extended into the early hours of Thursday morning in Russia, it should never have required spotkicks.
Carlos Tevez (twice) and Michael Carrick both spurned opportunities to extend the lead Cristiano Ronaldo gave United before Frank Lampard’s slapstick goal in added time of the first-half. Lampard tarnished one of the most innovative tactical halves of Sir Alex Ferguson’s epoch when, in an era of the sole striker, United reverted to 4-4-2 in club football’s biggest match.
Ji-Sung Park, widely expected to start after lining up in all four quarter and semi-final ties, stayed in his Paul Smith suit while Owen Hargreaves, superb on the right flank in the quarter-final home triumph over Roma, returned there while Ronaldo moved to the left. United and Chelsea’s tussles were known for their reticence yet even against the usually watertight Claude Makelele United regularly breached Avram Grant’s side and Michael Essien was the floundering fish out of water at right-back.
Grant later remarked how surprised Chelsea were that United started in 4-4-2 and the flexible formation allowed them to switch from a midfield duo to a trio, a luxury still available after the bloodied Paul Scholes withdrew for Ryan Giggs. This weekend, few United supporters are expecting a shock from Jose Mourinho, who is bound to revert to what is United’s top six team.
Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: David de Gea, Antonio Valencia, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ashley Young, Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku. That was the XI which overcame Tottenham last month and 10 of the starters lined up in the captivating comeback at City.
De Gea, Smalling and Matic were given a day off on Sunday, Jones, Pogba, Lingard, Herrera and Valencia stayed on the bench, Sanchez only played due to Anthony Martial’s knee injury and Ashley Young came off after an hour.
Mourinho clarified Lukaku, who has spent the last fortnight rehabilitating from an ankle injury at the Move to Cure centre in Antwerp, is due to check in at Carrington on Tuesday. United’s medical staff have been in dialogue with Move to Cure and should Lukaku figure at Wembley it will be his first appearance in 20 days.
“We hope he can play the final,” Mourinho said. “He’s in Belgium having his treatment in the communication between the doctors in Belgium and our medical department, and we are just waiting to see if it is possible for him to be involved in the final, if not starting, at least he can be on the bench.”
A possible bench berth might have persuaded Mourinho to oversee a tactical change at West Ham on Thursday night. Amid an insignificant atmosphere, United’s switch to a back three with Jesse Lingard in a striker’s role was potentially significant in what was possibly a tactical trial for a Cup final fall-back option.
United’s 2-0 home win over Chelsea 13 months ago remains the outstanding performance of Mourinho’s tenure and was achieved with a bespoke formation devoid of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, regarded at the time as indispensable. Instead, Mourinho started three centre halves and took started Lingard as an auxiliary striker with Marcus Rashford. Their pace to unsettle a languid Chelsea defence and Herrera’s piercing pass breached them within seven minutes.
That was the day United fans joked the police had issued a statement saying Eden Hazard was missing only to be found by Herrera. He tracked him to John Williams’ Jaws theme on Twitter and Hazard was among Herrera’s possessions when he emptied his pockets in a viral performance which effectively secured the Basque the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award. Herrera is the more mobile option to shadow Hazard across the vast Wembley turf than Matic.
Mourinho’s mystifying management of Eric Bailly could leave Victor Lindelof better placed to supplement Smalling and Jones, having played with them at West Ham. Bailly, Smalling and Jones started together in the November loss at Stamford Bridge where they inexplicably allowed Alvaro Morata to meet Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross unmarked and 13 months ago the back three was made up of Bailly, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian. Smalling and Jones are certainties irrespective of whether it is a two or three.
Sanchez has avoided a proper demotion by Mourinho and is assured of a Cup final berth whatever the system, which would possibly result in a squad omission for Anthony Martial should Lukaku start on the bench. Martial’s injury would perhaps provide a pleasant excuse for Mourinho.
But an unpleasant surprise for the Martialholics.
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