Connor Wickham has recovered from an ankle injury and should be fit to start, but Crystal Palace have a number of other injury worries. Joe Ledley is definitely out with a fractured fibula, while Wilfried Zaha, Yohan Cabaye and Yannick Bolasie are all doubts having missed the 4-1 defeat at Southampton on Sunday. United will have Marouane Fellaini back from suspension, but Matteo Darmian, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luke Shaw are all still out.
Palace’s form has been dismal since Christmas with just two wins in 21 Premier League games. The Cup, though, is a different matter and has fairly clearly been the focus for the past few weeks. United remain as underwhelming as ever. Tuesday’s victory in the rearranged game against Bournemouth means they’ve won six of their last eight in all competitions, but there’s little sense of them playing well or with any level of fluency. They’ve also developed a habit of losing the important games – such as that midweek defeat to West Ham that effectively cost them Champions league qualification.
Alan Pardew has spoken repeatedly of his desire to gain some measure of revenge for Palace’s defeat to United in the 1990 Cup final when United, having conceded two goals to the substitute Ian Wright, were saved by a late equaliser form Mark Hughes before winning the replay.
That game provides the context but of more immediate relevance are the two games this season. The sides drew 0-0 at Selhurst Park in October but United were comfortable 2-0 winners at Old Trafford in April, an early Damien Delaney own-goal setting the tone.
THE ZAHA REDEMPTION
Wilfied Zaha may feel he has a point to prove to United. He was Sir Alex Ferguson’s last signing for the club, but he made just two league appearances for the cub, both as a substitute. Assuming he is fit to take up a place on the right, the 23-year-old could have a key role, running at Marcos Rojo, who has never been the lightest on his feet and has looked especially clumsy in recent weeks. Even if Zaha cannot play, Palace have plenty of quick players in wide areas who could exploit Rojo.
The big tactical question for Alan Pardew is the make-up of his midfield. Although he could look to exploit United’s relative lack of pace by putting one of his flyers up against Michael Carrick, it seems more likely that, at least from the start, he will go for the more cautious option of fielding James McArthur alongside Mile Jedinak at the back of midfield, with Yohan Cabaye used as the central attacking midfielder in the 4-3-3. There is still scope then for the two wide men, probably Zaha and Yannick Bolasie, to cut in and try to attack Carrick on the diagonal. The probability is a game in which United control possession, have 65%+ of the ball, and Palace sit deep and try to strike on the counter. Set-plays could also offer a threat; United’s continuing vulnerability from corners is mystifying and, as Palace showed against Watford in the semi-final, when Wickham is in form they have the aerial threat to take advantage.
It may be that United overwhelm Palace, that their likely possession leads directly to chances and goals, but if not the key to breaking through is likely, as it has been for so much of this season, to be Anthony Martial who, along with the emergence of Marcus Rashford, has been the one undoubted success of this season for United. If the game does develop into a pattern of Palace sitting deep, holding United at arm’s length, a flash of magic from him, hitting the space between Joel Ward and Scott Dann, is perhaps the likeliest way through.
United at 1.74 look short given their many flaws, so while there’s a temptation to look at a Martial goal (he’s 2.75 to score at any time) in combination with a score prediction, the better approach is probably looking at ways of exploiting the longish odds on Palace.
With their pace and set-play ability, they certainly have ways of hurting United and there’s always the possibility with Louis van Gaal’s side that even if they do dominate they may not find a way through. Palace to win +0.5 at 2.18 looks the way to go.