IT’S 1990 all over again as Crystal Palace and Manchester United meet at Wembley in the Cup Final. Chris Graham (@chrisgraham79) gives us his thoughts.
Crystal Palace v Manchester United | Saturday 17:30 | BBC One
I’ve been really sweet on Crystal Palace winning this for the last couple of weeks now but once you spend an hour putting sentiment aside and researching the cold, hard facts it all feels pretty unlikely.
Most people tipped the Eagles to have a strong season this year (indeed I backed them in the Premier League handicap) and by the time the turkey was getting devoured on Christmas Day those predictions looked accurate.
On Christmas morning Crystal Palace sat sixth in the table, level on points with fourth place Tottenham and fifth place Manchester United. With nine wins from their 17 matches a tilt at the Top 4 wasn’t out of the question. Then it all went tits up.
Remarkably since Christmas Day they won just two more league games and the South London club plummeted down the table and at one point were single figure odds to go down.
Why the drop in form? Well there were various theories posited. The loss of Yannick Bolasie to injury and a typical Alan Pardew slump were chief amongst them.
While their long 14 match winless league run was snapped in early-April against relegated Norwich there’s no real evidence to suggest they’ve rediscovered their pre-Christmas levels. They won just one more in the league from their final six fixtures and were beating fair and square by Saturday’s opponents Manchester United last month in a 2-0 loss at Old Trafford.
One line of spin in their favour is that they’ve made the FA Cup their pure focus since any hope of finishing in an impressive league position departed during the cold winter. This is certainly possible and while their Cup form is eye-catching I’m slightly reluctant to take it at face value.
Yes, Palace knocked out Spurs, Southampton and Stoke (three of the Premier League Top 10) but how serious should we take those scorelines? This competition has become an inconvenience for the majority of top-flight clubs and you can assume there wasn’t any deep mourning going on when these sides were knocked out the competition earlier in the year.
Spurs played a weak side, Ronald Koeman couldn’t really care less about the competition and Stoke had just come off a heartbreaking Capital One Cup semi-final penalty shoot out to Liverpool. Should we really put too much stock into those victories?
One thing seems certain. Crystal Palace will have to raise their 2016 game if they have any chance of lifting the trophy on Saturday evening. There’s few reasons to suggest they’ll do that.
There are loads of reasons for taking a negative view on Manchester United this season. They’ve regressed from the previous campaign, their scoring stats are embarrassing and there’s a case to be made that this has been their worst season since the 1980’s.
But by the same token let’s give respect where it’s due and United’s defence this season has, for the second successive campaign, been a beacon in the gloom.
Louis Van Gaal’s side had the joint best defence in the Premier League and at one point in the season kept five clean sheets in a row. As well as this they lost just twice at Old Trafford and showed hard evidence of a big game mentality.
Yes, United managed to beat the whole of the Top 9 bar the champions Leicester and won well at Liverpool in January, saw off an in-form Arsenal in late-February and won at the Etihad in March. Solid.
So can we assume they’ll raise their game again here on Saturday? I’m inclined to believe so. While there is nothing particularly alluring or exciting about this side they are certainly functional.
There’s simply not enough evidence in 2016 to suggest that Crystal Palace can take down this stubborn, awkward side at the weekend and I can’t make a case for them.
I think this could potentially be one of the all-time dullest FA Cup Finals. Neither of these sides are free-flowing and it’s hard to imagine Van Gaal will release his iron grip on United’s style of play.
The stats are telling. 11 of the last 16 Manchester United games went Under 2.5 Goals and for Crystal Palace it’s seven games from the last 11. Add in the intensity and pressure of a Cup Final and you’d be surprised if it didn’t oblige at 4/6.
I’m going to be really boring and cover any sort of narrow (ish) Manchester United win here. Firstly I’ll back them to win by exactly one goal at 12/5 with Bet365 and than have a small saver on a 2-0 win at 7/1 with 888 Sport. 2016 may continue to be miserable for Palace fans.