Friday 19 January 2018

Lingard gives final flourish to Van Gaal's United reign

Crystal Palace 1 Manchester United 2

Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick lift the FA Cup following yesterday’s extra time victory. Photo: PA
Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick lift the FA Cup following yesterday’s extra time victory. Photo: PA
Joel Ward and Scott Dann of Crystal Palace look dejected in defeat. Photo: Getty
Crystal Palace's English midfielder Jason Puncheon (L) celebrates after scoring the opening goal. Photo: Getty
Juan Mata of Manchester United (L) celebrates as he scores their first goal. Photo: Getty
Jesse Lingard of Manchester United celebrates as he scores their second goal. Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

The perfect finish, in more ways than one. If this is to be Louis van Gaal's last game at Manchester United, as now looks almost certain, he has at least delivered the crucial first trophy since Alex Ferguson retired.

For all the Dutch coach's faults, too, this final victory over Crystal Palace came thanks to one of the indisputable virtues from his two years at Old Trafford: a young player stepping up. That has sometimes been because of necessity rather than design, but local youth graduate Jesse Lingard put some design on his perfect 110th-minute volley when most needed, to complete United's comeback and also ensure the club again go level with Arsenal on a record 12 FA Cups.

Alan Pardew and Palace must still wait for their first ever senior trophy, having been 1-0 up from Jason Puncheon's equally excellent strike with just 12 minutes left. The manager's preposterous celebratory dance was all too premature.

The reality is that Van Gaal is probably leaving, however, because United have too often had to wait for thrust like this too. That was even the case in this game. They only came to life properly after Puncheon had opened the scoring. Not for the first time, United only began to fire when circumstances got away from Van Gaal's infamous "control" - right down to Chris Smalling getting sent off for a chaotic attempt to stop a Yannick Bolasie break. That is one reason why it is still arguably correct that the Dutch coach goes, despite this being something of a redemption and vindication.

Even the manner of winning reflected some of the happenstance of his reign. Van Gaal had initially dropped Lingard for Juan Mata, only for that to leave United a little too prosaic and allow Puncheon to eventually thunder Palace into the lead, before the Spanish playmaker equalised moments after that first goal. Lingard was then brought on for Mata, and promptly did the rest.

Again, it was hard to say that this was any kind of design, but it met the necessity. Wayne Rooney also broke from his ill-fitting midfield role to show the impressive perseverance of a man who has only this trophy left to win in his club career.

The question now is also whether the worst thing Palace did was score. It transformed United. Up until then, this final mostly offered reasons as to why these two clubs have had such erratic league seasons, and why they had to rely on the cup for any kind of redemption.

It was generally quite lively but still fairly low-quality, and most of the first 78 minutes boiled down to this: Palace would lash the ball forward for their fast players to run onto, United would walk it back and, in the midst of all that, referee Mark Clattenburg would panic.

The official didn't exactly show why he was picked for next week's Champions League final - and it's a wonder how he's going to deal with the cynicism of Atletico Madrid - but he did show a lot of uncertainty, usually when Palace broke.

There were a number of occasions when the pace of the London side's counter-attacks would cause chaos - and a lot of indecision for Clattenburg, although he was eventually correct in sending off Chris Smalling in extra-time for trying to deal with one of those counter-attacks like a scrum-half.

It was also the early pattern of the game: erratic pace versus overly exact possession.

United would attempt to steadily move the ball around, only ever breaking out of that through a sparks of ingenuity from either Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial, and Palace would then try and use the momentary break in the eternal Van Gaal build-up to career forward.

It was still United who had the better chances, though, mainly because they just had the better players rather than anything about their performance.

With Martial and Rashford, there was always the potential for something to happen. The question is how bad United's season would have looked without these two: one a panicked late signing in the window, despite his obvious quality, the other a youngster who initially only got into the team because of an injury crisis.

Rashford hit the post with a header on the hour, following up from Marouane Fellaini's excellent effort against the bar.

It was ironic, then, that the game only came to life when one of the liveliest players went off. Rashford suffered an injury shortly after that move and, within minutes, United suffered the full force of that Puncheon strike. Taking down Joel Ward's ball superbly, the substitute then instantly lashed an unstoppable shot past David de Gea, that completely caught the goalkeeper out.

It also served to bring out United's best play, and Mata's instant equaliser, even if Palace can still dwell on one two late misses by Wilfried Zaha and Dwight Gayle.

This is almost certainly too late to save Van Gaal's job. The expectations are that Jose Mourinho will be in place this week.

If this is Van Gaal's own last dance, though, it is a fine final flourish.

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