With not much left to play for in the Premier League, Manchester United and Tottenham’s seasons boil down to Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final. Win, and both clubs will take a step closer to ending 2017/18 with silverware; lose, and the final few games of the campaign become dead rubbers.
For Manchester United, that will be an important silver lining at the close of a season that has seen Manchester City move so far ahead of them. For Tottenham too though, it feels as if this season’s FA Cup is their best chance of winning the trophy Mauricio Pochettino’s maturing side deserves after so many near misses in recent campaigns.
So, having become such a significant competition for both clubs this season, who will come out on top in Saturday’s semi-final showdown? This week’s experts, The Sun’s Spurs-loving Sean Cook and Football FanCast’s very own United-adoring Sam Preston, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of 5.15pm kickoff…
It’s strange that United’s campaign has been deemed something of a disappointment, considering how consistent they’ve been compared to recent seasons. This will be United’s strongest finish in the Premier League since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, but the gap between City has overshadowed that improvement.
Does winning the FA Cup and finishing second constitute a successful season for United?
Sam: “I think it does. In this era where six big teams are competing for four trophies and four Champions League spots (five if Arsenal win the Europa League), collecting a cup and being in the top four is a good season. It’s not been a brilliant campaign; we should be closer to City, the Bristol City and Sevilla debacles were embarrassing and we’re still not fluid, but another piece of silverware and another season in the Champions League is a success.”
Tottenham’s season, meanwhile, will be partly remembered for their temporary home – which will also be the venue of Saturday’s semi-final. At the start of the campaign, it was predicted to become a real burden for Pochettino’s team, but some have argued it’s now given the north Londoners an unfair advantage over United for the weekend.
How much will Tottenham’s familiarity with Wembley be an advantage against the Red Devils?
Sean: “It’s become almost laughable, the reaction to Wembley this year. At one point there was a ‘hoodoo’, now it’s seen as an advantage because of how well we’ve done there – we can’t win! It will never feel like home, but our form there has been remarkable. Given we’ll be in the away dressing room, plus half the stadium will be United fans, I don’t feel like it gives Spurs too much of an upper hand. They’ll feel more comfortable than in previous semi-finals, but that will be the extent of it.”
The last time Tottenham hosted United at Wembley, it ended in a 2-0 win for the home side – in a match that became memorable for Spurs’ explosive start and Jose Mourinho’s decision to hook off Paul Pogba after an hour of getting the runaround from Mousa Dembele.
What key aspects of that performance need to be replicated on Saturday?
Sean: “If we can match the energy and enthusiasm early like we did in that game, Spurs can win this. The key to tackling these big teams at home this year has been to come flying out the blocks and panic them – something United couldn’t handle after Christian Eriksen’s early goal back in January.”
And what do United need to learn from that game to avoid a similar outcome?
Sam: “Where do I start? Pogba in a midfield two doesn’t work against the top sides, letting in a goal after 11 seconds isn’t a good idea and United must show more energy in order to match Spurs. It should be a 4-3-3 on Saturday and with Eric Bailly and Ander Herrera likely to start, United will fancy themselves to make it a much more even game. But they will have to play much, much better than they did last time they were at Wembley.”
Ahead of their Premier League clash with Bournemouth on Wednesday night, Mourinho warned that it was a chance for certain individuals to play their way into Saturday’s starting XI, after his most trusted players suffered a woeful defeat at home to West Bromwich Albion last weekend.
Which players grabbed their chance against the Cherries, and who could be left on the sidelines?
Sam: “None of the players who came in were outstanding. Jesse Lingard was benched against West Brom but I’d expect him to start at Wembley. Alexis Sanchez looks the player most at risk of missing out and if he does, I’d expect Marcus Rashford to get the nod. Sanchez has a sensational Wembley record though, and Mourinho clearly bought him to produce the goods when it matters most. Saturday is certainly one of those days.”
While the defeat to the Baggies was immensely disappointing, the win over Bournemouth was solid if not hugely inspiring, barring two well-worked goals from Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku. But amid all the debates over Mourinho’s cautious philosophy, too many egos being in the dressing room and some very unspectacular performances, it’s easy to forget the level of quality the Red Devils boast in attack.
Which United player brings the biggest threat into this game?
Sean: “The win over Bournemouth in the week showed that even when they’re having a quiet spell, the quality United have can carry them over the line. Whether they start or not, Pogba and Sanchez have the firepower to hurt Spurs. Sanchez’s pace in particular caused us problems in the first 20 minutes at Wembley earlier in the year. In the semi-final last season, Chelsea were able to bring Eden Hazard and Diego Costa off the bench, two players who won them the game. United have the same calibre of player and if Mourinho uses them correctly, that could prove the killer blow.”
Where will this game be lost and won?
Sean: “I say it almost every week, but we need Christian Eriksen to be at his best. His passing, decision-making and overall game was poor against Brighton, so Pochettino needs to get him fired up for this one. If he can match the performance he showed against Swansea in the semi-final, I’m sure he can be decisive in helping Spurs win this game.”
Sam: “Psychologically. If Tottenham ignore their long wait for a trophy and their run of seven straight FA Cup semi-final defeats and play the game with the confidence they showed in that 2-0, they should win. If they let the occasion get to them and allow United’s greater big-game nous to intimidate them, then the Reds have got a fighting chance.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
Sam: “2-2, with United to win on penalties.”
Sean: “United 1-2 Spurs.”