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Whatever your thoughts on the value of the FA Cup in the modern game, there is no doubt that Manchester United and Everton played out a real cup-classic at Wembley on Saturday evening. The game mattered for both clubs for very different reasons and it showed on the pitch as both sides showed passion, purpose and desire.
Manchester United started the game brightly and took the lead through Marouane Fellaini to enter the break ahead having dominated proceedings. Everton came back strongly in the second half, and but for some poor finishing could well have won the game. It was a match of missed chances for both sides but, in the end, a superb goal from Anthony Martial settled the tie in injury time and sent the Reds through to the final; here are 5 things we learned.
1) Chances at Last
It’s been the story of United’s season that pedestrian possession has failed to produce incisive football and a wealth of chances; but that was not the case at Wembley. Perhaps inspired by the youthful exuberance of the forward line, the Reds played with purpose and always looked a threat.
Much can maybe be attributed to the quality of Everton as a defensive unit but Manchester United still looked the best they have for some time in an attacking sense. Unfortunately, there was a serious lack of clinical finishing that nearly cost them on the day, but if the club continue to play in the same manner as at Wembley for the rest of the season the goals will come.
2) Fantastic Fellaini
The big Belgian has come in for a lot of criticism ever since he joined the club, but Saturday evening was perhaps his best and most complete performance in a Red shirt. It’s no coincidence that Fellaini’s best games come when given more freedom in a 4-3-3 to get forwards, and from box-to-box on Saturday the midfielder made a real contribution.
The former Everton man was always a threat going forwards and grabbed the crucial opener after great work from Anthony Martial. Perhaps just as important, though, was his work defensively. Countless times the Belgian midfielder headed the ball away from his own box and he showed great desire in chasing back to block what was almost certain to be a goal from Romelu Lukaku. For all the criticism, when Fellaini plays well, United tend to win, and that was the case on Saturday.
3) New Role for Rooney?
It’s been suggested for some time that Wayne Rooney will eventually drop into a midfield role and, with the emergence of Marcus Rashford, Louis van Gaal has decided that the time may now have arrived. There is certainly no question over Rooney’s passing ability or his sense of defensive responsibility and he showed against Everton that he can make a real difference in a deeper role.
It was United’s captain who tracked back to clear off the line early in the match as Lukaku rounded David De Gea and all afternoon the former Everton man looked composed. Everton certainly afforded him far too much space and time on the ball and so questions still remain as to his long term suitability to the role, but Rooney showed at Wembley that he may be able to contribute in the role in the future.
4) ‘What a Waste of Money’
‘What a waste of money’; that was the headline in a certain newspaper not so long ago about Anthony Martial. Nevertheless, as he has done all season, the Frenchman silenced the critics and put in a match winning display.
Having provided United’s opener, Martial won the tie in injury time with a composed finish that defies his age on the biggest of stages. Manchester United have always prided themselves on youth and the development of talent, and all associated with the club will have the sense that Martial might just be something very special.
5) Fluid Future?
Jesse Lingard missed a number of good chances, but his overall performance was actually very good and his fluid style was indicative of a new direction and way of playing. Lingard, Martial and Rashford are all quick, skillfull and capable of playing in wide areas as well as through the middle. It is clear to see that they enjoy playing with each other and they interchanged to great effect at Wembley.
It’s easy to forget how young they are too, and for all of Everton’s faults, a semi final at Wembley demands maturity which they all delivered beyond their years. It was a fluid and purposeful attacking display from the whole side and a great afternoon for all associated with the club. Even an FA Cup win should not mask the shortcomings of this campaign, but boy that win felt good, and boy that felt like Manchester United.