There is, dare I say it, a small part of me that feels a tinge of remorse that, if all goes as it should, Manchester United will be the team that puts an end to Crawley Town’s FA Cup run.
Everyone loves, as they say in American sports culture, the Cinderella story, the underdog, the team or player with destiny written on them. And part of the lure and the mystique that make the FA Cup a must-see event every season is seeing the little guy hit the big time for a day, a few weeks, orr in Crawley Town’s case, more than a month.
Alas, the sensible and less sensitive part of me is mindful of the fact that, with the run of matches that lies ahead for United (and that may or may not include the toughest one of ’em all, depending on what happens at Stamford Bridge this afternoon), this is the very kind of matchup United needed to have this weekend.
This isn’t to discredit what Crawley Town have done or that they could potentially frustrate and annoy for a solid portion of the match. In fact, for anyone who’s watched United for an extended period of time this season knows that assuming an easy win is unwise.
Crawley Town, who sit second in the Conference (or Conference National, or Blue Square Premier…old habits die hard) and only three points behind leaders AFC Wimbledon with four games in hand, are the first non-league side to reach the fifth round of the FA Cup since Kidderminster Harriers did so 17 years ago. If you’re a believer in omens and such, this is a good omen for Manchester United. Five non-league sides had reached the fifth round in the post-WWII era before Crawley joined the club this year, and on three of those occasions (1947/48, 1984/85, and the aforementioned 1993/94 edition), the eventual winners of the competition were, you guessed it, United.
To position themselves for such a momentous occasion, Crawley have defeated three Football League sides, with two of those wins coming away from home. After stunning League One Swindon Town away in extra-time in a second-round replay, cardiac Crawley did it at the last-minute at home in the third round against Championship side Derby County, then booked their place in the fifth round with a 1-0 away win over League Two side Torquay United.
Of course, Manchester United at Old Trafford, even with the lineup that we’re set to send out today, is a much bigger animal than Derby County, Swindon Town, and Torquay United combined, but Crawley certainly aren’t cowering in fear, at least in the quotes department.
In the facts department, here are a few fun ones:
– Crawley sport the best defense in the goal-friendly Conference, with only 20 goals allowed in 28 matches. They’re one of only five teams in the division who are allowing less than a goal per game.
– Crawley also sport the Conference’s leading scorer in Matt Tubbs, who’s 25 goals in 26 matches is one less than the league-leading 26 (joint-top with now-teammate Richard Brodie, who was then at York City – hey, if you can’t beat ’em, have ’em join you, eh?) he netted in 42 appearances for Salisbury last season and seven ahead of the league’s second-most prolific scorers.
He’s also added three in the FA Cup, including the winner at Torquay, and no one in English football’s top five divisions has more goals this season. Take that, Berba?
– Crawley also sport the only Torres in English football who’s actually performing up to or above his talent level in Argentine midfielder Sergio, who scored the injury-time winner against Derby.
So, Crawley do have some elements of danger about them, and the mentality is certainly there to make them a nuisance. And with that in mind, we will see several regulars and veterans in the starting lineup today, as Fergie tipped his hand that there will likely be starting places for Chicharito, Rafael da Silva, Michael Carrick, Anderson, Darron Gibson, Wes Brown, and John O’Shea.
At the same time though, not only does the opposition offer up the opportunity to give some full rest to the weary and nicked stars ahead of Wednesday’s foray to Marseille (ooh, rhymes!), it also provides a chance to see some fresh faces on the bench and in the starting leinup. Along with the likelihood of Anders Lindegaard, Fabio da Silva, Gabriel Obertan, and Bebe all being in the starting lineup, youngsters Josh King, Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, and Ryan Tunnicliffe are all in the squad as well.
We’ll certainly have seen stronger sides from United, but the likely starting XI is more than capable of finishing Crawley off in enough time to allow us to get a good glimpse of what some of our best and brightest youngsters have to offer and not spend the latter moments wondering if Rooney, Berba, or Nani should have been given places on the bench.
Prediction: 3-1 United