Replay a juggling act for Ferguson
Manchester United were a few minutes away from dropping out of the FA Cup when a former Premier League player, who has the club in his heart, mentioned that an early cup exit would give United four free weekends to concentrate on keeping themselves in pole position in the EPL. Talk about clouds and silver linings.
Naturally, that all went out the window when Robin van Persie, United’s new super hero, metaphorically donned his cape and flew in to save the day. Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had not been at their brightest, and the West Ham crowd were gearing up for a famous scalp. But the atmosphere lurched suddenly when Ryan Giggs and van Persie combined to produce a jewel of a goal. It was no wonder Ferguson purred afterwards. In one move he had witnessed a moment of dazzling quality, fused that gritty determination not to be beaten that he insists upon. United are the masters of hustling their way out of trouble. They may do it with style and gloss, but the hustle mentality is also gloriously fundamental.
A replay might not have been ideal, but under the circumstances United had no complaints. But Ferguson now has another interesting team selection on his hands. For the highest profile teams with the heaviest schedules, there is usually a bit of juggling required for the early rounds of the FA Cup. A manager has to figure out how best to use his resources. The idea is to pick a team strong enough to win the FA Cup filling in the Premier League sandwich, without taking too much substance away from the bread. That’s why the likes of van Persie, to use the most obvious example, was only named as a substitute in the first match at West Ham - only to be used in an emergency. Keeping him fit and fresh is an utmost priority.
This replay is squeezed between two tough Premier League assignments - the always meaningful tussle with their old foes from Liverpool, and a trip to Tottenham at the weekend. January is an unforgiving month, with the challenges piling up and no respite allowed after a glut of festive football, and before the Champions League resumes next month with a tantalizing rendezvous with Real Madrid.
West Ham face a similar predicament. Although they are in the mid-table safety zone, Sam Allardyce knows well that any promoted team must keep half an eye over their shoulder until Premier League survival is assured. A 3-0 thumping at Sunderland last weekend exposed the kind of weakness that is not comfortably tolerated. West Ham have three London derbies coming up in quick succession once they get their FA Cup breath back.
Allardyce has been busily trying to strengthen his options, with Wellington Paulista and Marouane Chamakh arriving on loan from Cruzeiro and Arsenal respectively, and with Joe Cole’s infectious eagerness to play having a good effect, West Ham will hardly go to Old Trafford with the idea of lying down and being trampled over.
That said, it is hard to avoid the feeling that their best chance of progress was whisked away by van Persie in the first meeting. West Ham had endeavored with great spirit, and to have their balloon popped like that was a crushing disappointment. The team have not scored a single away goal for a little over seven weeks, so progressing from a tie that will be concluded in this neck of the woods is a tall order.
Manchester United’s priority may well be the Premier League and Champions League, but Ferguson would relish a long run in the FA Cup too. Although United remain the most successful club in the history of the competition, with 11 FA Cups on their honors list, it has been a while by their standards since their last triumph. That took place eight years ago. Tim Howard was in goal, and the goals that won the day came from Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
United won the FA Cup four times in the 1990s. But since the legendary treble of 1999, they have claimed English football’s most romantic silverware just once. Ferguson will want United to rekindle the affair sooner rather than later.