After Tuesday’s thrilling comeback victory at Blackpool, Manchester United return to FA Cup action and to the road as they face League One promotion hopefuls Southampton on Saturday evening.
On Tuesday night at Bloomfield Road, United were down 2-0 with under 20 minutes remaining. But three goals in the late stages, including a brace by Premier League scoring leader Dimitar Berbatov, handed the league leaders a 3-2 win and a five-point lead over Arsenal at the top of the Premier League table.
This weekend, United turn their focus to another trophy pursuit, as they look to secure a place in the last 16 of the FA Cup for the eighth time in nine seasons.
Three weeks ago, United opened their FA Cup campaign with a 1-0 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford, and their reward is a tie with former Premier League foe Southampton, who collected a Premier League scalp in the last round with a 2-0 home win over United’s most recent opponents.
These two sides last met in the third round of this same competition two seasons ago, with United notching a 3-0 win at St. Mary’s. In that encounter, goals by Danny Welbeck, Nani (from the spot), and Darron Gibson saw off the then-Championship side, who played with 10 men for nearly an hour.
Southampton are trying to work their way back up after some troubled years both on the pitch and financially. After a nearly three-decade stay in the top flight ended in 2005, the Saints were relegated from the Championship in 2009.
A 10-point penalty stemming from their financial issues prevented them from making the League One promotion playoffs last season (they would’ve finished fifth if not for the penalty), but the Saints are on track for at least that this season. Currently, Southampton sit fourth with 41 points from 25 matches, eight points behind leaders Brighton but only two back of Bournemouth for the second automatic promotion spot.
Southampton boast League One’s second-best defensive record, as they’ve allowed only 22 goals all season, and they’ve surrendered only nine in 14 home league matches. In the scoring department, they’re certainly not too shabby at all with 43 (4th in League One), led by Rickie Lambert’s nine.
Young talent has been a big part of Southampton’s resurgence, and one of those young talents, 17-year-old midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, is currently in United’s sights and will be a man to watch this weekend. However, it remains to be seen whether or not another one of their young guns will be in the mix. Playmaker Adam Lallana, who has nine goals and eight assists in all competitions this season, has been out of action recently due to a knee injury, and he may or may not be fit enough to return for Saturday’s clash.
You can expect Fergie to take this tie seriously, so we’ll certainly see some starters from Tuesday night in the starting XI on Saturday. But with a quick turnaround to Tuesday’s Premier League match with Aston Villa at Old Trafford, there will likely be places for some fringe players and bit-part starters. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a partnership of Michael Owen and Javier Hernandez up front, and we could well keeper Anders Lindegaard make his United debut. Perhaps there could also be a place on the bench for midfielder Danny Drinkwater, who as recalled from a loan spell at Cardiff City this week.
One player who’s certain to not be a part of the action is Rafael, who will be held out after sustaining a concussion in a nasty collision with Marlon Harewood late on at Blackpool.
There’s quite a bit of history between Southampton and Manchester United, some of it very, very forgettable for United faithful. To avoid similarly forgettable results this time, United will need to play up to their ability, not down to the level of their opponents, because on talent alone, even a half-strength United should get the job done.
Southampton will likely look to not take too many risks so as to minimize the chances of playing themselves out of the match early. But United should break them down eventually and do enough to book a place in the fifth round.
Prediction: Southampton 1-2 Manchester United