Cup cruise eases the strain on Van Gaal
Shrewsbury 0-3 Manchester Utd
The end will surely come sooner or later for Louis van Gaal but at least the Dutchman avoided a humiliation in the FA Cup last night as Manchester United cruised into the quarter-finals with an easy victory at Shrewsbury Town.
After all the talk of an out-of-sorts United encountering the kind of banana skin that did for Ron Atkinson's FA Cup holders at then lowly Bournemouth in 1984, Van Gaal's team made light work of dismissing their League One hosts.
They dominated from start to finish, struck first-half goals through Chris Smalling and Juan Mata and added a third in the 61st minute through Jesse Lingard.
Indeed the Shrewsbury fan who announced while collecting his ticket before the match that he had flown in from Manila to witness his side's first meeting with United did not see them force a single save out of Sergio Romero in the United goal.
For United the reward is a sixth-round home meeting with West Ham United, for Van Gaal a bit of breathing space.
Ed Woodward need not make that much-predicted phone call to Jose Mourinho just yet. How long it lasts, though, with Midtjylland visiting Old Trafford in the Europa League on Thursday, then Arsenal on Sunday, remains to be seen.
United have not won the FA Cup since 2004 and they had arrived in this corner of Shropshire on the back of a dismal run of five wins in 18 matches in all competitions.
The scoreline has the look of a restorative result for a dispirited bunch of players but whether it proves that way on Thursday when United set about seeking to overturn that 2-1 deficit against Midtjylland remains to be seen.
On paper, this was your classic cup confrontation: League One's 21st-placed team versus the world's self-styled biggest club; a team whose FA Cup best is two quarter-final appearances against the 11-time winners; David versus Goliath; Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed.
And the big question was whether Micky Mellon's underdogs might just deliver the knockout blow for the beleaguered Van Gaal.
United had arrived in this corner of Shropshire on the back of a dismal run of five wins in 18 matches in all competitions.
Last week that brought defeats at Sunderland in the Premier League and then Midtjylland in the first leg of their Europa League round-of-32 tie.
This week holds the promise of fresh embarrassment with a 2-1 deficit to overturn when Midtjylland visit Manchester on Thursday night but last night at least, United evaded the banana skin that awaited them at the New Meadow.
In fairness it was not the kind of bumpy ride Shrewsbury, then a League Two club, delivered when eliminating Everton in the third round in January 2003.
Then, the club's chairman, Roland Wycherley, suggested to his manager, Kevin Ratcliffe, that they let the Premier League side have the more comfortable home dressing room. Ratcliffe's answer was of the two-word variety and, on the pitch, Shrewsbury went and shocked Everton.
The New Meadow is a more comfortable place but despite the smooth playing surface, United could still be trusted to conjure up one or two red-faced moments early on.
Memphis Depay hit the advertising sign at the top of the Salop Leisure Stand with one shot. Guillermo Varela then fell on his backside while trying to control a wayward Jesse Lingard pass.
Shrewsbury have not won at home in League One since October yet though they worked hard to frustrate United, packing their half with 10 blue-and-amber striped shirts, there was never a whiff of an upset.
Inside 90 seconds Smalling could have scored but put over a free header from a corner.
Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, United's assured-looking young left-back, then rolled a ball across Memphis and he brought a diving save from Jayson Leutwiler.
It was not Leutwiler's only save as, with the half-hour approaching, he half-stopped an Anthony Martial shot, after Memphis had played in the Frenchman. With the ball looping behind the keeper, Abu Agogo completed the rescue act by heading the ball away before it could cross the line.
Eight minutes before the break, United's pressure did yield a reward. Smalling was still in the home box after a half-cleared corner and, when United recycled the danger, with the recalled Morgan Schneiderlin nodding the ball back towards goal, Smalling picked it up and fired in a shot that bounced up off the turf and beyond Leutwiler with the aid of a huge deflection.
It was a scruffy goal but the relief on Van Gaal's face was tangible. Gary Lineker tweeted: "Big shock on the cards at Shrewsbury as Manchester United take the lead."
By half-time it was 2-0. Following Zak Whitbread's trip on Martial, Mata curled a 20-yard free-kick over the wall and past the flatfooted home goalkeeper for his seventh goal of the campaign, with the home players complaining that United's 'wall' were offside.
One frustrated fan in the Roland Wycherley Stand cried out "Let's have a shot" on the resumption and Mellon began the second period with one of his three centre-backs, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, removed and replaced by Larnell Cole, a young midfielder who once won the FA Youth Cup with United.
It did nothing to alter the course of the game. Martial headed wide when he might have scored and then Lingaard did get the third goal.
It came after a rare occasion that Shrewsbury got into the United box. Sergio Romero collected the cross from Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro and United countered at speed, with Ander Herrera lifting the ball to the far post where Lingard applied a low, first-time finish through the legs of the Leutwiler.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.
Independent News Service