FA Cup 4th Round: Cambridge United 0:0 Manchester UnitedManchester United's most surreal season goes on as the Red Devils failed to beat League Two Cambridge United in the F.A. Cup last night.
Cambridge, 75 places below United in the pyramid, forced a 0:0 draw at the Abbey Stadium after a classic all hands to the pump defensive effort for 90 minutes. They can now look forward to a £1.5 million windfall from the replay at Old Trafford.
Louis Van Gaal chose a strong side but despite dominating possession, they failed to penetrate the mass of yellow shirts before them. Radamel Falcao, Daley Blind and Robin Van Persie all missed chances but Cambridge, eager for a draw, deserved a point for frustrating their monied opponents.
The David v Goliath script and humble setting made for a classic F.A. Cup atmosphere and the raucous home support celebrated at the final whistle as if they had landed a winning slingshot on the team Van Gaal called "The biggest club in the world" last summer.
Fans going home with a spring in their step and a lot to talk about is something all true supporters can identify with.
The contrast between the two sides was striking. Cambridge fielded ten Englishmen and a Scot, United three Englishmen and seven other nationalities. Cambridge's wage bill is £1.1m, United's £215m. Most of United's team had played at the World Cup in Brazil.
The Abbey Stadium, which I recall as one of the worst I have visited in England, was packed with 8,000 delirious supporters, while the replay at Old Trafford will host up to 76,000. The only similarity was that both coaches were European Cup winners - Richard Money as a Liverpool substitute in 1981, Van Gaal as Ajax manager in 1995.
After the match, Van Gaal referred to a substandard pitch and biased referee, but acknowledged the intimate atmosphere which helped Cambridge had been fantastic. "Everything is against us in such games", he said. After United's travails last night and their third round win at Yeovil Town, the former Barcelona and Bayern boss is having a crash course in lower league English football.
Another match will not worry United unduly, as with no European football this season, the F.A. Cup has taken on greater importance at Old Trafford.
But a fog of uncertainty still lingers around the Dutchman's Manchester project. While the occasion and conditions begged for a more English approach, Man U looked very continental last night, building gently from the back and passing horizontally even late in the game while ten yellow shirts bided their time patiently in front of them.
Yet Falcao, a physical number nine, was stranded up front without support, waving to his teammates to whip crosses in he could challenge for, instead of trying to infiltrate Cambridge's massed ranks ineffectively on the floor again.
Even with the attacking riches of Falcao, Van Persie, Antonio Valencia, Blind, Adnan Januzaj and Angel di Maria up against them, Cambridge never really looked like losing and that should be food for thought in Old Trafford's match analysis centre.
United's blank scoreline begs the question of how to break down a side who plainly had no intention of moving upfield, a style of play alien to the Premier League.
Perhaps an older English confrontation provides some clues. When Harold II's Anglo-Saxon shield-wall frustrated the Norman army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror feigned a retreat to lure the English soldiers down the hill before counter-attacking at speed with his cavalry.
The weakened English defence then succumbed, Harold was killed and the Normans won the day.
With the pace of Di Maria and Valencia to call upon, as well as the striking prowess of Falcao and Van Persie to perform the coup de grace, Man United surely had the tools to change tactics and win.
Van Gaal still seems unsure of his best eleven and having eschewed English football for years, is clearly finding his new surroundings hard to adapt to. He has toyed with formations and blooded youngsters encouragingly yet remains a fish out of water, albeit a big one with an even bigger reputation.
Many an eyebrow was raised when he recently said what he liked most about England was the food.
When asked to clarify, he cited the wine lists and Chinese dishes.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile