Crystal Palace-Manchester United Preview
Manchester United's chase for a Champions League place continues Wednesday with a mid-week clash against Crystal Palace at Old Trafford.
It's been a season of remarkable inconsistency for Louis van Gaal's men - some weeks they look like world-beaters, some weeks they look completely uninterested - and it's been an unenviable challenge for the Dutch manager to coax consistent performances out of his side.
File Saturday's 1-0 win over relegated Aston Villa somewhere between those two extremes. The Red Devils (16-8-9) dominated the ball in the opening half and grabbed the winner thanks to youngster Marcus Rashford, who's been nothing short of a revelation with seven goals in 12 matches since his call-up from United's academy.
But the hosts seemed to back off in the second half and allow Villa back into the game. Although the defence held up to keep the clean sheet, Van Gaal was less than pleased with his team's performance.
"It was not our best performance, of course, you have seen it for yourself," the manager said. "I think we played too slowly and it was also difficult as they were playing very defensively and very compact. But we have three points and that is the most important thing at this stage."
The win allowed Manchester United to open a three-point gap on West Ham United for fifth place and claw within four of Arsenal for fourth and the final Champions League spot with five matches remaining.
"We've defended really well this season and we need to continue until the last game and hopefully we will be in the top four," goalkeeper David De Gea added. "We need to win our games and wait for the rest of the teams. We will see in the end."
Wednesday's tilt could be a preview of the FA Cup final as United could face Palace (10-9-15) at Wembley if they manage to get past Everton in the semifinals Saturday.
Midfielder Juan Mata emphasised the pride the club feels as they charge toward the FA Cup final, a trophy they have not lifted since 2004, but also the need to remain focused on two fronts.
"In this complex season we have managed to advance in the FA Cup and now we are very excited with this unique competition that has no equal in the world, with a stadium and atmosphere that make you feel the weight of history," Mata said in his weekly blog post.
"However, before Everton and the FA Cup we have to focus on the Premier League game against Crystal Palace this coming Wednesday. Our goal is to play in the Champions League the next season and all we think about right now is to win every single game.
After breaking a horrific club-record 13-match winless run in league play with a 1-0 win over Norwich City on April 9, Alan Pardew's Eagles have it all to play for against Watford in the other FA Cup semifinal Sunday, but they must first remain focused on the task at hand Wednesday.
The club enter this clash with some much-needed positive energy after taking a point away from the Emirates Stadium with a 1-1 draw against Arsenal thanks to a goal from Yannick Bolasie nine minutes from time.
"My team deserve tremendous credit because it is tough to play here, we had a game plan that meant we would make sure that they didn't have a fast start and then build as the game went on and that is how it played out and then at the end we nearly won it with that great run from Wilf," Pardew remarked. "We didn't deserve that though but we had a good strategy to us today and the lads did well."
The Eagles will also be aiming to make a little history as they have never beaten Manchester United in league play, losing 10 times and drawing three. They have lost all six of their matches at Old Trafford by a combined 14-2 scoreline, with both goals coming in a 5-2 setback in 2004.
The teams played to a tepid scoreless draw at Selhurst Park on Halloween, with Manchester United putting only one shot on target and the sides combining for six yellow cards.