LONDON: Chasing a gilded finale to a difficult season, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United face an Everton team reeling from Merseyside derby humiliation in Saturday’s first FA Cup semifinals at Wembley.
Van Gaal found himself back in the media’s crosshairs following a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month, but not for the first time this season, his side responded with a timely burst of wins.
Victory at West Ham United in their FA Cup quarterfinals replay provided the spur for back-to-back league wins over Aston Villa and Crystal Palace that have bolstered United’s quest for Champions League qualification and they will travel to London with renewed confidence.
“We are further than last year,” Van Gaal said of his side’s FA Cup progress. “Then it was the quarterfinals, now it is the semifinals. It means we are better than last year.
“We are in the semifinals and still in the race for fourth. That was our aim.”
A long, dark English winter is threatening to burst into a far more pleasant spring for Van Gaal, who is seeking to steer United to a first FA Cup final since they lost 1-0 to Chelsea in 2007.
Uncertainty surrounding the Dutchman’s Old Trafford future continues to swirl, with Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino continually touted as potential successors in the British press.
But success in the FA Cup, which United last lifted in 2004, allied to a top-four finish in the Premier League would strengthen Van Gaal’s hand greatly as he approaches the final year of his three-year contract.
Furthermore, United’s line-up in recent weeks has demonstrated the commitment to youth that helped Van Gaal land the job in the first place.
Marcus Rashford, the 18-year-old striker who only made his debut in February, continues to play, and score, with the coolness of a seasoned professional and his displays have been supplemented by the verve of fellow forwards Anthony Martial, 20, and 23-year-old Jesse Lingard.
The trio’s displays have meant that captain Wayne Rooney, back in action after a knee injury, has had to drop into a midfield role, which is where he is likely to play if selected against his old club on Saturday.
While the worm may be turning, albeit slowly, for Van Gaal, the same cannot be said of Everton manager Roberto Martinez, who is living through the blackest days of his Goodison Park tenure.
A run of seven games without victory in the league has definitively ended Everton’s European ambitions and Wednesday’s 4-0 thrashing at Liverpool left the Spaniard looking exposed.
Martinez has tasted FA Cup glory once before, memorably leading Wigan Athletic to a shock 1-0 victory over Manchester City in the 2013 final, and he has called on his players to re-focus as quickly as possible.
“We need to re-group and make sure we have that opportunity to give the fans what they deserve — a chance to get in the finals,” he said.
“It is such a huge footballing occasion at the weekend that the only way we have got is to face adversity in an exemplary way and get ready to perform well in the semifinals.”
Everton’s task has been complicated by the fact that center-back Ramiro Funes Mori will be suspended after being sent off at Anfield for an ugly ankle-high challenge on Divock Origi.
With captain Phil Jagielka and John Stones both doubtful, due to a hamstring injury and illness respectively, it could leave Martinez with a crisis in central defense.
Right-back Seamus Coleman is nursing a hamstring problem and midfielder Gareth Barry is also a doubt after sustaining a groin injury against Liverpool.
But should Everton need inspiration, they need not look far back, having overcome United in a penalty shootout when the teams last met in an FA Cup semifinals at Wembley in 2009.