Cambridge defy Manchester United's uncut diamond
Cambridge Utd 0 Manchester Utd 0
This had been the night when famous visitors came to town, when Cambridge dared to dream in a first half when they played the better football, looked far more in tune with their tactics and enjoyed the better chances than Manchester United.
The Abbey Stadium reverberated for a game that had all the classic FA Cup ingredients. Manchester United were so poor before the break, labouring in their diamond, while Cambridge sparkled in their 4-5-1 system.
Manchester United’s fans had worked their way into the South Stand through Coldham’s Common, although at least the English Longhorn cows had been moved from their path for the winter. They took up their seats in a building adorned with a Cambridge club mantra: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog”. That dog may have been small, it may have lacked the pedigree of the visitors, but it fought so hard.
The size of the dogs were rather different, with Cambridge having been close to extinction a decade ago, with the League Two side having a wage bill of £1.1m as against the Premier League side’s £215m. Radamel Falcao, who lacked service in the first half, makes £265,000 a week, a contrast to the hosts’ highest earner on £1,500. Yet it was only one team delivering value for money in the first half. It was the team containing players like Tom Elliott, who really went for Manchester United.
Cambridge’s head coach, Richard Money, had told his players like Elliott not to swap shirts because the club couldn’t afford it. Van Gaal had felt confident enough to omit Wayne Rooney completely, a decision that raised a few concerns as Rooney understands the importance of the Cup and the determination required against lower-league opposition. His team line-up indicated a lack of faith in Ander Herrera, who was on the bench.
Manchester United’s presence in a League Two ground with the Amber Army shaking the Newmarket Road End was the stuff of dreams for the locals. The £5 match-day programme pored over every connection with Old Trafford, looking at Dion Dublin’s transfer, even interviewing the visitors’ club chaplain (“clearly I believe there are more important things in life but defeat does affect me”).
Cambridge’s chief executive Jez George wrote emotionally of the honour of Ryan Giggs being in the dugout, of what a “privilege” it was “to be able to host such an iconic club and these football legends at our humble home, as well as Sir Bobby Charlton, a World Cup-winner and all-time great”.
Cambridge rolled out the red carpet for their distinguished guests but there was no standing on ceremony on the pitch. Elliott, Cambridge’s tall centre-forward, kept alarming the defence of the 11-time winners. Elliott had pressured Marcos Rojo into conceding a corner which Ryan Donaldson sent over. Seven Cambridge players initially surrounded David de Gea, who responded with an unconvincing attempt at a punched clearance. It quickly became clear that Cambridge had spent plenty of time working on their set-pieces.
When Marouane Fellaini then fouled Cameron McGeehan, Donaldson again swept the ball into a frenzied penalty area, Elliott headed wide.
Cambridge were attacking the end housing the away fans, who chanted “Louis van Gaal’s red-and-white army” incessantly, breaking off when they noticed Luke Chadwick, who won the Premier League title at Old Trafford, warming up for Cambridge. “Chadwick One, Gerrard Nil”, they sang.
Their team gave them nothing to sing about in the first half.
Van Gaal was looking on from his modest dugout, peering over hoardings for some “personal injury specialists”.
He had continued with the strikeforce which started against Yeovil Town in the third round, Falcao and James Wilson. Falcao, running towards the bouncing Amber Army in the Newmarket Road End, had an early shot blocked by Greg Taylor.
Van Gaal had injected more pace into the team with Wilson and Di Maria joined by Adnan Januzaj, whose name was chanted loudly by the Manchester United supporters. After all the debate about how a back-four made him “twitchy” in the rump region, Van Gaal dispensed with his three centre-halves and wing-backs. He shaped his players in a diamond formation with Michael Carrick holding, Di Maria at the tip with Fellaini and Januzaj tucking in. Daley Blind brought a save from Chris Dunn but it was De Gea the busier.
Liam Hughes shot wide and then Sullay Kaikai came to the fore. His movement troubled Fellaini, who was soon booked and then gave away a penalty as the winger wove his way into the visitors’ box.
Again Donaldson lifted the ball towards a knot of team-mates lurking in the six-yard box. Again Van Gaal’s side looked ill at ease defending a set-piece. De Gea breathed a sigh of relief as Josh Coulson’s header floated over. “We’re going to score in a minute,” chanted the Cambridge fans.
Their team were playing with width in Kaikai and Donaldson, with a tireless target-man in Elliott, and concentration at the back, Coulson and Michael Nelson keeping tight to Falcao and Wilson.
Dunn was equal to a shot from Januzaj. Di Maria then sent a free-kick horribly over, ending a half in which celebrated visitors could easily have fallen behind.
The wind sweeping into the Abbey was soon joined by the rain.
The pitch was cutting up. The home fans were revelling in the aristocrats’ travails. Manchester United tried to raise their game. Januzaj tested Dunn again. Then Carrick released Falcao, and suddenly the Colombian awoke, off and running and bringing a magnificent save from Dunn, who pushed the shot over.
Two-thirds of the way through the game and Manchester United had finally conjured up a moment of individual class. Van Gaal was clearly unimpressed with his team’s laboured performance. Robin van Persie replaced Wilson after 67 minutes. Herrera came on for Fellaini. Four minutes after arriving, Van Persie almost made the breakthrough but his shot flew over.
As the clock ticked down, as the Cambridge fans continued to raise the decibels, Manchester United sought the goal to spare their blushes. Di Maria went close. But Cambridge were breaking. Chadwick had come on, playing some good passes around. Donaldson continued to bring invention.
Phil Jones, whose corner delivery had been erratic, then impressed at the back, making a vital headed clearance. Van Gaal made his final change, sending on Luke Shaw for Blind. (© Daily Telegraph, London)