After a promising start to the season, a title challenge seemed a real possibility for Manchester United in November.
Since then, the situation has changed considerably. The Red Devils went eight games without a win before victory over Swansea on Saturday- a run which saw them slide down the league table and be unceremoniously dumped out of the Champions League group stages.
Despite this, a shocking run of results and a scarcely believable lack of goals, manager Louis van Gaal has kept his job. The man who looked crestfallen after his team's 2-0 defeat at Stoke cut a much chipper figure after this weekend’s win.
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It is possible that the rot has stopped for now. However, it has undoubtedly left some irreparable damage. Nine points adrift of Arsenal, a title challenge is now out of the question; while participation in the Europa League will serve only as an embarrassment unless the United emerge as winners.
The new league target must be to secure a top four finish and have another crack at the Champions League next season. However, it is unacceptable for a club like Manchester United to continue without winning trophies.
As a result, their participation in the FA Cup suddenly takes on more importance. The club has an illustrious record in the competition with 11 victories; the first of which came in 1909.
However, it has been 12 years since their last successful campaign, where they defeated Millwall 3-0 in the final at the Millenium Stadium. Having been afforded a relatively kind third round draw at home to Sheffield United, this season’s competition provides a timely opportunity to bring success back to Old Trafford.
The recent victory over Swansea came courtesy of the type of magic moment from Wayne Rooney that has been sadly lacking at the Theatre of Dreams this season. While the victory was not a comfortable one, the fans finally had something to be excited about.
First and foremost, the fixture against League One Sheffield United serves as an opportunity for the players to express themselves with more freedom.
They are away from the top level quality of the Premier League, against what will, in theory, be a much weaker opposition.
It is an opportunity for messers Rooney, Martial and Mata to express themselves and bring more enjoyment to those supporters who have had to endure United’s insipid recent performances.
However, even more importantly, the fixture provides a platform for future success. If they defeat the Blades on Saturday, United will need to win just five more matches to bring back F.A Cup success.
While this is easier said than done, they will be facing domestic opposition in doing so. Hence, the opposition will either be of a lower standard, or teams which they encounter on a weekly basis.
In terms of preparation, this is a much simpler proposition than winning a Europa League where each round takes a two-leg format and the opposition can range from the relatively unknown to European powerhouses like Dortmund and Sevilla.
Prioritisation of the FA Cup makes sense for Manchester United. They are a club who need to win trophies and the longer their dearth of silverware continues, the more they risk losing stature as a world giant.
Starting this Saturday, a cup run would be the perfect way for Van Gaal to win back the Old Trafford faithful.
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