Why Manchester United Must Target a Run in the FA Cup This Season
Manchester United now turn their attention to domestic matters after a heady experience during the 1-1 draw against Real Madrid at Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. First up for the Red Devils is an FA Cup fifth round fixture against Premier League strugglers Reading.
While Manchester United are historically the winners of the most FA Cups, the last eight years have been fallow in this competition for the Old Trafford outfit. This is a stark contrast to rivals Chelsea, who have won the FA Cup four times in the same period.
A number of factors such as tough draws, fielding of weakened teams, and an obvious relegation of the FA Cup to third priority have all contributed to the Red Devils' lack of success in this competition.
However, recent noises coming from Old Trafford suggest that United are approaching this season's FA Cup with a strong desire to win the competition at Wembley in May. This change of attitude isn't just refreshing, but also a compulsion for United.
Here are the reasons why Manchester United are targeting a long run in this season's FA Cup, and why success in the FA Cup is critical to the Red Devils' season.
Nothing excites the faithful more than a long run of good results by their team
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Since the loss to Norwich City on November 17, 2012, Manchester United's record reads: 14 wins, four draws and two losses. The losses were both in Champions League dead rubbers, against Galatasaray and Cluj.
In the league, the Red Devils are the form team right now, having won eight games and drawn only two in their last 10 fixtures. This run has coincided with their rivals floundering and dropping points, a fact that sees United 12 points ahead of second-placed Manchester City, with 12 games to go.
In fact, the United team has grown from strength to strength during the past few weeks. The high scoring form from earlier in the season has now been supplemented by a tightening of the defence. Recent results have reflected the same sort of momentum seen in previous trophy-winning years (e.g. the undefeated second half of the treble season).
It is important for everyone at United to recognize that they are moving forward like a freight train, especially with games coming thick and fast. And to prevent the slightest wobble, they must focus and try to win every game.
History with the FA Cup
Look who celebrated United's last FA Cup victory in 2004
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Only four players currently in the squad at Manchester United have FA Cup winners' medals: Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Robin van Persie (with Arsenal in 2005). Long-serving players like Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney have only ever reached the final of the FA Cup and lost.
While the Red Devils have been the most successful English club in the last five years, the lack of an FA Cup in their list of recent honors will be an anomaly that the team and manager would love to correct.
As a result, there will be that extra motivation within the squad to go on and win the oldest club competition in the world. For many, it will be a way to complete their full set of honors while at Manchester United. For others, it will be another milestone in their bid to match the standards set by old timers like Scholes and Giggs.
The game against Real Madrid showed the full strength of the squad
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This may sound optimistic, but there is truth in the manager's words. With the injury problems from earlier in the season receding, the manager now has a bigger squad than he did in the 1998-99 campaign.
It is of course, a different issue as to whether United's first-choice 11 actually compares favorably with the treble-winning team, or with their competitors in England and Europe. However, the fact remains that Sir Alex has the luxury of rotating his players more, and giving each of them enough rest without adversely affecting the team's performance in the matches they play. The performances of Jonny Evans and Phil Jones against Real Madrid served to highlight this exact point.
The FA Cup also provides an opportunity for players who have sometimes been on the team's fringes to come in and impress the manager. The longer United are involved in the Cup, the more competition there will be among the squad, and this will surely help the team achieve greater honors.
Laying Down the Marker to Pretenders to Their Crown
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Last season, Manchester United suffered their first trophyless season since 2004-05. The way in which the club lost the league, exited the Champions League in the group stages, and bowed out in the other cup competitions will surely rankle long in the minds of everyone associated with the club.
To make matters worse, the Red Devils' rivals had very successful seasons, with Manchester City winning their first Premier League title, and Chelsea winning their first European Cup.
In order to prove all the statements regarding the demise of the Alex Ferguson era wrong, United needs to come back with a massive statement of their credentials. And nothing will be more massive than a season where they win multiple trophies.
Winning the FA Cup isn't just a bonus. It is necessary for making this statement of Manchester United's intent to remain the preeminent force in English football.