There were no giants slain in Shropshire, no romantic “cupsets” Monday night at the New Meadow. Manchester United advanced to the FA Cup quarterfinals and a date with West Ham at tiny Shrewsbury Town’s expense, 3-0. Chris Smalling got the vital goal in a game that had little of the traditional cup blood and thunder. The win will, however, mildly ease some of the pressure on embattled United manager Louis van Gaal, a man desperate for wins wherever he can get them.
This one came just on the edge of the Welsh border, courtesy of a team a full 60 places below United and struggling in League One (England’s third division, despite the name). The Shrews were always mighty underdogs in this tie: the lowest-ranked team left in the FA Cup, Salop’s finest have had a difficult season and are going to be lucky to stave off relegation, having won a paltry nine games in the league.
Yet, as always against this year’s Manchester United, there was hope for the minnows, as well as the large group of football fans who simply despise the Red Devils. United, who have been bad, boring and on occasion truly dreadful, entered the game under a deep cloud. There’s Jose Mourinho, apparently already measuring for the drapes in van Gaal’s office; there’s the bitter sniping inside the boardroom that apparently has cleaved the club; and then, there’s the fact that United lost to a tiny Danish team in the Europa League last week.
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So it was a very real possibility that tiny Shrewsbury could pull off the upset, wasn’t it? No, not really. This was always an ask too far and manager Micky Mellon seemed to concede that from the start, deploying a bank of five in front of a back three and gambling that his front-runners might be able to nick one on the counter. In practice, the Shrews rarely crossed the halfway line and seemed to deal more with midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Juan Mata than any United defender.
United were knocking on the door for most of the first half, with Memphis Depay forcing a smart stop out of Jason Leutwiler in the 9th minute. Anthony Martial then had a goal-bound shot well-saved by Leutwiler twenty minutes later that Abu Ogogo had to head off the line to fully clear it.
Given all sorts of time and space by Shrewsbury, it became a waiting game as to when (not if) United would score. The breakthrough finally came when Schneiderlin caught the back line out. Collecting a long outlet from Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Schneiderlin saw Smalling, nominally a defender, gambling up top. His pass through beat Nathaniel Knight-Percival, and while Smalling’s shot was ugly, it bounded off the turf and over a helpless Leutwiler.
United padded their lead just before the break, this in more controversial fashion. American Zak Whitbread could have no argument with the call that led to the free-kick, as he hacked down Martial under full steam and was correctly carded. But as Juan Mata lined up the free kick, United placed three men behind the Shrewsbury wall in an offside position, deliberately screening Leutwiler. As Mata took the kick, the players rushed forward, and Leutwiler did not move as the ball dropped into the top corner. Should the linesman’s flag have gone up? Probably, as the players were interfering with play, but it did not, so ref Robert Madley let the goal stand. The Shrews did not protest too much, either.
The second half progressed just like the first had, with United adding unneeded insurance on the hour courtesy of Jesse Lingard. The Shrews had switched to a 4-4-2 and tried to get Jean Akpra Akpro and Andrew Mangan involved, but the main result was that United had more space to maneuver in. Lingard took advantage with a nice finish, converting off a cross from Ander Herrera.
Will Keane nearly put United four up, striking the post in the 74th minute. Unfortunately, he also injured himself on the play, reducing United to ten men for the final 15 minutes of play. Shrewsbury chose that moment to take their first shot on goal of the game, a ball that keeper Sergio Romero bobbled badly, but it came to no effect.
The Shrews did have a chance at a late consolation goal, when Jack Grimmer flighted in a fine cross that Abu Ogogo leapt to meet. But his timing was awry, and though Romero was beat, the ball trickled well wide.