Manchester United are understandably the heavy favourites to lift their first FA Cup in 12 years this weekend. The Red Devils finished 24 points ahead of Crystal Palace and beat them comfortably 2-0 just a month ago. Throw in the fact that the Londoners have won just two of their 21 league games in 2016 and have never won this competition before and it all looks a bit grim for any Eagles heading to Wembley on Saturday evening.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of hope for Palace supporters. The fact that they have spent the whole of 2016 focussing their efforts on this cup can only bode well. Alan Pardew’s men have already disposed of the likes of Southampton and Spurs en route to this showpiece and have kept three clean sheets on the way.
The London team’s strengths fit perfectly, for Palace at least, in with United’s deficiencies and that could be a potent combination.
Manchester United’s susceptibility to set pieces is obvious. Despite having the best defensive record in the top-flight they look truly woeful when having to address balls into the box. Louis van Gaal’s team conceded 14 goals from dead balls in the Premier League, more than a third of the goals they have conceded this term. In total they have been breached 21 times in all competitions.
Centre halves have had their fun against the north-west outfit, using their physicality and aerial prowess to bully a defensive unit lacking in a truly commanding presence, owing much to the stature of Daley Blind.
Wes Morgan exploited this at Old Trafford a few weeks ago, Winston Reid’s winner at Upton Park recently was another example, while James Tomkins escaped Chris Smalling in this very tournament to give United a scare at the same venue.
Palace are a real treat when the ball goes into the box. The likes of Scott Dann and Damien Delaney are monstrous men who can wreak havoc in both boxes, while Connor Wickham showed what he can do in the semi-final victory over Watford.
Pardew will be basing his gameplan on getting as many balls into the box as possible, as well as getting the ball wide, winning free-kicks and playing the percentages.
There is no shame in admitting that, on the ball at least, Palace are the inferior group of footballers, however, that does not mean that they cannot exploit the weaknesses that exist in their opponents armoury.
Van Gaal was not shy on blaming issues with his full-backs for his own deficiencies in his usually egotistic drivel at the Theatre of Dreams in midweek and that is an area that Palace should look to exploit.
Marcos Rojo has nearly always looked worse than average but recently he has taken a nose dive from that point to full blown liability. The Argentine is leaden footed at times and has a real habit of not picking up late runs from the back stick. All this bodes superbly for the Eagles. Whether it is Yannick Bolasie or Wilfried Zaha going at Rojo, he is not going to enjoy his time on the Wembley turf, or at least he shouldn’t.
One the right side, although things will likely be slightly better for United defensively, there is still the presence of Antonio Valencia, who, despite his blistering pace, struggles when asked to go back towards his own goal.
Van Gaal could opt to throw Cameron Borthwick-Jackson into the mix at left-back, but that is a lot to ask from a youngster and he may well freeze in the spotlight.
Further hope for the underdog comes from the way the Red Devils have melted in a fair amount of big matches this season. It seems they lack the leadership and mentality to hold it together when the pressure is on, the absence of an FA Cup for 12 years and a season-defining game is sure to have a few in red more than a little nervous.
They struggled with the pressure on against Liverpool in the Europa League, as they were comfortably swept aside. Their Champions League campaign was a perfect example of how they have struggled to come to terms with important matches, as they registered just two wins and failed to emerge from an easy group.
In the Premier League, United couldn’t handle the challenger of the Emirates after three successive win and were blown away in 20 minutes. After they got in a position to make the top four they imploded at West Brom and were made to look distinctly average by Tottenham. They even seemed to get the yips in the emotional farewell to Upton Park, ultimately ending their top four hopes.
There is plenty there for Crystal Palace and they should head to Wembley knowing they can beat Manchester United and put Louis van Gaal and the vast majority of Red Devils supporters out of their misery.