This years FA Cup has been littered with upsets. Bradford’s victories over Chelsea and Sunderland, Middlesbrough knocking out Manchester City and Blackburn’s success against Swansea and Stoke have been part of what has made this one of the most unpredictable seasons in the tournaments recent history.
It is this unpredictability and the much-famed ‘magic of the cup’ that has Preston North End fans dreaming of progressing to the quarter-finals by knocking out their illustrious rivals Manchester United tonight.
A fixture steeped in history, Preston and United haven’t met since 1972 when a Red Devils side featuring George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law won 2-0 in an FA Cup tie at Deepdale.
Preston were once giants of the English game
While United’s side is still packed with world famous names and are still battling at the top of English football, the same can’t be said for two-time FA Cup winners Preston. Simon Grayson’s side are pushing hard for promotion from League One and have a genuine chance of success, but the glory days of Sir Tom Finney and co are a distant memory for Lilywhites supporters.
However, the nature of this seasons tournament, and the vulnerability that Louis Van Gaal’s side continue to show will give them real hope that they can upset the odds and knock United out of the FA Cup. I’ve reported on Preston from Deepdale numerous times this season and there is definitely reason for optimism in the belief that way they play can trouble the 11-time champions. Here, I will look at the way Preston will approach the game and who are the key men for Grayson.
Grayson must play to his strengths
Preston can play in different ways depending on their selection and formation. That variety has helped them threaten at the top of League One but don’t be surprised if Grayson adopts a fairly direct game plan against United. He shouldn’t be criticised if he does so because there is a definite weakness in the way United go about dealing with set pieces and crosses into the box.
Having said that, Preston do have the ability and the players in their ranks to get the ball down and pass it around the park. The likes of Neil Kilkenny and Paul Gallagher in particular and very good technicians in central areas and would back themselves to trouble United with a passing game. However, they are very adept at putting telling crosses into the box from wide areas and I would expect they will look to get the ball out to the flanks at every opportunity.
We saw a real weakness from United in the game at West Ham last week when the ball went into the area from set pieces and they will need to compete much better in the air than they did in that game to progress to the quarter-finals.
Don’t be at all surprised to see Grayson give the nod to veteran striker Kevin Davies and look to him to win the ball in the air and work off the flick-ons. Joel Garner has returned from injury recently and has the goal scoring instincts to worry United. Paul Gallagher has real quality in behind and with the pace out wide generated by the likes of Chris Humphrey and Kyel Reid, Preston aren’t short of attacking options on their day. So who are the key men for the Deepdale side?
Preston have four players to watch out for
Tall, strong and imposing, Huntington is a crucial figure for Simon Grayson’s side. The 6ft 2in centre half competes superbly in the air in both penalty areas and isn’t afraid to stick his body on the line to protect his goal. United will need to watch out for him from corners and free kicks and the likes of Falcao and Di Maria will need to show plenty of movement to get the better of him defensively.
The striker is a natural goalscorer and started this season on fire before injury curtailed his bright start. He has returned recently and adds an extra dimension to Preston’s attacking play. Expect Grayson to play him up alongside another striker and let the striker work inside the penalty area to cause the shaky United defence plenty of problems.
He has so often been the class act for Preston this season and they will look to him to provide the quality and inspiration once again. Gallagher’s delivery from wide areas and set pieces is a real weapon for his side and his goal return is also impressive – Gallagher is the joint highest scorer in the competition with five goals. If he plays well, United will need to keep a close eye.
A man that needs no introduction. Everyone knows the threat that Davies brings. His battling qualities and his presence in the air has always been his major strength and despite his advancing years, Davies is still more than capable of giving opposition defences a rough ride. The centre forward notched his 150th career goal in their last home game but that was his first in 46 matches. Despite this, Davies could well be a vital cog in the Preston side on Monday night.
What do United need to do?
The reality is that if United turn up and play to their potential they will brush Preston aside with ease. The beauty of the cup is that so often isn’t the case. To get at Preston, United need to show pace and energy across the park.
They must press the home side hard, putting pressure on when they are in possession to stop Preston getting the ball out to the flanks. They also need to show far more pace and movement up front than has been evident in recent matches.
It would be no surprise at all if James Wilson gets a start as the pairing of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao has looked slow and laboured.
One thing is for sure, it is a tie steeped in history and promises to be a captivating encounter.