The magic of the FA Cup continued last night with League Two Cambridge United holding Premier League Manchester United, 75 places above them, to a goalless draw and a lucrative replay at Old Trafford.
On a cold and windy night in January, Cambridge fought like dogs against their more illustrious rivals on a narrow pitch with the crowd on top of the players in a packed ground with just under 8,000 noisy supporters crammed in. It was inevitable what was going to happen. The Cambridge side with all but three players under six feet tall, would rely on set pieces and with the pacey Donaldson, rely on the counter attack.
Manchester United set up with a back four in a diamond formation with Blind as left back, Valencia as right back, Rojo and Jones as centre backs. There was no start for Victor Valdes, he had to contend with the icy wind blowing passed him whilst sat on the bench. Also on the bench was Herrera, who always appears to make things happen for United but once again he was left out of the starting eleven. Adnan Januzaj was given the nod and Falcao was partnered with James Wilson, which is how United finished last weeks win over QPR. Cambridge went with a 4-2-3-1 system.
It was clear early on that the wind was a problem with the Cambridge keepers goal kicks not reaching the halfway line but United could not take advantage of this and it was Cambridge who played the better in the first half.
From early on it was obvious that Rojo and Jones would be in the thick of the action and they appeared up for it too. Tackles flying in and lots of high balls to contend with which they did well. The only thing that let them down especially Jones was his poor distribution, often playing it straight to a player in yellow. Daley Blind saw plenty of the ball and on 10 minutes he cut down the left wing and when his cross came back to him, his shot was put out for a corner. Queue the scratching of heads again, why is Jones, a centre half taking corners? Surely his height would be better served in the box? Surely there are better set pieces takers at the club than him? All very confusing.
Cambridge`s real threat was the pace of Kaikai always willing to chase long balls and Donaldson, who every time he picked up the ball in midfield was prepared to run with it and take men on.
Cambridge were very happy to sit back with nine behind the ball playing a disciplined game, happy to give United possession into their half but crowding them out as they got near their penalty area. The midfield was so congested that United should have utilised the wings more and stepped up the pace. As it was, United were pedestrian which played into Cambridge`s game plan. When Valencia did go flying down the right flank on 21 minutes, his cross was controlled by Januzaj who tried to place it but his shot was shaved by Dunn, but it was a sign of what United should be doing, getting around the back and pulling balls back for the oncoming midfielder`s.
Cambridge`s best chance in the first half came on 30 minutes. Every corner was a scramble for De Gea and the defence with the six yard box crammed with players. As the cross came in, the header looked to be going in but a Cambridge player got in the way, the scramble that continued saw a header just loop over De Gea`s bar.
With United`s shooting well off target, Di Maria a classic example, the service up to Wilson and Falcao being poor which meant Wilson hardly touched the ball in the first 45 minutes and the build up being to pedestrian, Cambridge went into the break buzzing to have held their rivals to 0-0.
The second half changed with Cambridge sitting deeper giving United upto 80% possession for large periods of the half. De Gea became a spectator and it looked like Cambridge would rely on set pieces. United continued with a slow build up with players happy to pass sideways or backwards rather than trying to push forward, confidence issue or Cambridge`s organised defending?
On 61 minutes, United finally showed a glimpse of a cutting edge when Carrick played an incisive ball to the feet of Falcao but his snap shot was well saved, it was something positive. When Van Persie and Herrera came on it was not surprise that United`s tempo went up. Herrera gives United something, he never stops moving and is always looking for that defence splitting pass. When they were introduced, United were now camped in the Cambridge half yet Jones summed up United`s night when his shot swerved woefully wide, how can an international footballer be prone to such poor efforts?
To Cambridge`s credit, they chased and fought for everything. Their energy levels did not drop once, whenever the ball came to the feet of a player in red, a player or two was hunting them down straight away.
In the last ten minutes, Cambridge became a threat again, you felt a goal for either side now and it would be the winner. Jones headed superbly away in his own six yard box under pressure after a wicked cross from the right, but in the end it finished goalless. Cambridge celebrated like it was a win and rightly so. They get a day out at Old Trafford they deserved and Louis Van Gaal has questions to answer and quick.
Why do his players either go sideways or backwards? Is it a confidence issue? Where is the cutting edge? Where is the leader in the side to get a grip of the game and the team and drag them through a game like last night? Falcao will be judged for goals, yet the service up to him is awful, why? How has Di Maria gone from one of the world best players to an average player overnight?
Van Gaal will have tough questions to answer from the press who so far have given him an easy ride. Whilst Sir Alex Ferguson suffered embarrassing cup draws and defeats to the likes of Burton, Exeter, York and Coventry, it is not the result but the manner of the performances that are worrying supporters.
Written by Ian Hope [@fromtwelveyards]