KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS —– Manchester United fans streamed out of Old Trafford on Monday night, gloomily confronting the realisation that a 2-1 FA Cup defeat by Arsenal had ended their last chance of a trophy this season. On the other hand, restricting Louis Van Gaal’s focus to just the one target of a season-ending place in the top four might just be a blessing in disguise.
Arsenal, the Cup holders, were the better team on Monday and deserved their place in the semi-finals. United produced the mixed-up muddle of a performance which demonstrated that they are still struggling to create the shape and style which Van Gaal wants.
Indeed, the conundrum about United is that they are fourth in the Premier League without ever playing consistently well this season or coming anywhere close to a settled line-up in terms of personnel or tactics.
Oddly, in a bizarrely high number of games for a team in their position, goalkeeper David De Gea has been their man of the match.
Concern over their transfer policy was exacerbated by the sight of United fan Danny Welbeck, unloaded to Arsenal during the summer, score the winning goal after Wayne Rooney had cancelled out an early strike from Nacho Monreal.
United even finished with 10 men after Angel Di Maria compounded a dive by grabbing the jersey of outstanding referee Michael Oliver by way of unfounded protest.
At least now they can concentrate on achieving a Champions League return beyind a difficult 10-game run-which in includes awkward tests against Tottenham (home, on Sunday), Liverpool (away), Manchester City (home), Chelsea (away) and Arsenal (home, again).
Van Gaal has used no fewer than 37 players in all competitions this season despite not playing in Europe and departing early from the League Cup. Even allowing for a string of injuries and Van Gaal’s wish to see all his players in action, this is no recipe for consistency.
The next games will all involve more chopping and changing. Jonny Evans must serve out a six-match ban for spitting last weekend at Newcastle’s Papiss Cisse, Di Maria – already substituted twice early in previous games for poor form – is suspended for the Spurs game and the fitness of Robin Van Persie and Radamel Falcao is questionable.
This leaves a huge burden resting on the shoulders of Rooney. On Monday he battled away tirelessly as an orthodox central striker and was United’s best player after De Gea.
United must look back to 1989 for the last time they went two seasons without a trophy, which makes a swift recovery from Monday’s upset all the more important.
Rooney, who must fear he is destined never to win the FA Cup, took up the captain’s responsibility of trying to rouse the troops in the wake of a rare defeat by Arsenal.
He said: “Conceding the second goal the way we did [after a defensive error] meant we were always chasing the game. They made it difficult for us. Mistakes happen and it’s a hard one to take but we have to dust ourselves down and get ready for Sunday.”
Van Gaal’s presence is not in question. Indeed, it may be bad news for United fans, but former captain Roy Keane believes he may need two or even three years to complete the trophy-worthy rebuilding work.
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