Sheffield United travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United in one of the standout ties of the FA Cup third round weekend (5.30pm Saturday on BT Sport 2).
Despite being the most successful club in English football over the last two decades, Man Utd have a surprisingly poor record in the FA Cup since the turn of the century. Their success in 2004 – Championship outfit Millwall were defeated 3-0 in the final – is the only time they have got their hands on the trophy in the last 16 editions of the tournament. They have reached just two other finals in that time: Arsenal, rather fortuitously, triumphed after a penalty shoot-out against United in 2005, while Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners in the first final back at the new Wembley Stadium in 2007.
Louis van Gaal has come under significant pressure in recent weeks, with Man Utd failing to qualify for the knockout stage of the Champions League and slipping down the Premier League table after a run of six games without a victory. The Dutchman may therefore be tempted to target the FA Cup this season, with a piece of silverware likely to placate frustrated United fans as long as a place in the top four is also wrapped up by the end of the campaign.
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Nevertheless, Van Gaal is still likely to make changes to his starting line-up for the visit of Sheffield United, particularly as the Red Devils face Newcastle United in the top flight at St James’ Park on Tuesday. Wayne Rooney (pictured) was rested for the Boxing Day trip to Stoke City – the 30-year-old now seemingly struggles to play every game – and could be selected among the substitutes on Saturday, with Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia, Marcos Rojo, Nick Powell and Luke Shaw all out injured.
Jesse Lingard could make his return after a hamstring problem. Youngsters and fringe players such as Andrea Pereira, Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Paddy McNair are all hoping to be included in the matchday squad.
Sheffield United have already played twice in this year’s competition, defeating Worcester City 3-0 in November before overcoming Oldham Athletic 1-0 last month to book their place in the third round. Nigel Adkins’ charges, who find themselves in eighth place in League One, have lost only one of their last six matches in all competitions, and will be quietly confident of an upset at Old Trafford this weekend.
The Blades have a decent pedigree in this tournament, winning the 1899, 1902, 1915 and 1925 editions and finishing as runners-up in 1901 and 1936. In more recent times, they reached the semi-finals in 2003 and 2014, an excellent record for a team who have spent only one season in the Premier League in the last 22 years.
Sheffield United also made it to the last four of the Capital One Cup last term, where they were narrowly beaten by Tottenham Hotspur over two legs. Despite making it that far, Nigel Clough was sacked as the club’s manager for failing to win the play-offs, a move that suggested the United hierarchy’s priorities lie in achieving promotion back to the Championship. Adkins will be fully aware of the fate of his predecessor and may therefore choose to make changes to his side too.
Manchester United are likely to be too strong for Sheffield United on Saturday, even if Van Gaal does decide to heavily rotate his squad. While the Red Devils have clearly endured some difficult moments in 2015/16, they remain one of the best teams in the country and will be determined to give the FA Cup a good go this year. Sheffield United will bring a large away following to the northwest, but they are unlikely to leave with a famous victory.