Less than a week into the New Year, and it was time for Manchester United to make their first appearance in the FA Cup, against fellow Premier League side, West Ham.
The Cup has not been a competition of success for United since 2004, with Sir Alex Ferguson pointing out that Rio Ferdinand has not won one, and that it would be desirable to win it for him. Regardless of sentimentality, Sir Alex will be hoping for better things from his side in the biggest domestic cup this season, given his particularly high standards.
To highlight the seriousness with which he was taking the game, Sir Alex named a strong side for the trip to Upton Park. David De Gea started in goal, with Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans in front of him. Buttner was at left back, Smalling at right. In midfield, Cleverley and Scholes were partnered up, with Kagawa and Rafael Da Silva on the right. Up front stood Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez.
The first half was a fairly even affair, with both sides getting forward and looking positive, without either truly dominating. Although the visitors started off the brighter, as the half progressed, the hosts brought themselves into the game. United looked sharp and quick on the counter, and were slick in their passing moves, focussing on the right early on. Hernandez was called offside before squaring to Welbeck, and Scholes found Smalling down the right before he played a ball across, trying to find Hernandez charging into the box, but the ball was just too much of a stretch for him.
After 20 minutes, a breakthrough. Hernandez collected the ball on the right before playing a low ball across the box. Cleverley came charging in on the left to meet the ball completely unmarked to finish coolly to give his side a 0-1 lead.
The lead barely lasted 5 minutes before a free kick was never truly cleared, and Joe Cole picked up near the left corner of the box, before curling in a ball that met Collins in plenty of space to head home and leave De Gea with no chance. 1-1 and game on.
The second half began with United able to regain some control of proceedings, without coming across a clear cut chance. However, around the hour mark, the hosts completed a turnaround, in similar fashion to their first. Joe Cole once again played in a cross, with Collins in space to glance a header in. 2-1 and once again, United fell behind.
With trouble afoot, United sent on the cavalry, in the form of Van Persie and Antonio Valencia. Van Persie nearly had an immediate impact, heading wide from Buttner’s corner. With time running out, Giggs was also brought on to find a way back. The game looked set for a nervy and tense finish. West Ham were tightening up ready for an attack, effectively congesting the area as United got forward. As added time was shown it looked as though they would hold on.
However, 92 minutes on the clock, and Giggs played through Van Persie with a brilliant pass from left to right, beating the defense before finishing beautifully to draw the game level at 2-2, to earn a late cup replay.
With that, here are five things that may be taken from the game.
1) Ferguson is taking the Cup seriously
Of course, a replay is not an ideal situation. Given United’s heavy schedule as it is, Sir Alex will no doubt want to keep extra matches to a minimum. However, it would also be fair to say, fans would like to see United make a good run at the Fa Cup this season, given the lack of success in this competition for many years. It was clear that Sir Alex was taking this seriously considering the relative strength of the side he named, as well as the players he had on the bench, namely Van Persie and Valencia. West Ham away was always going to prove a tough game and if a replay is what was earned, then so be it.
2) Marking the weak point
If there was one area of the defense that proved a problem for United on the day, it was the marking. The two goals scored by the home side were very similar, with Collins in space to get on the end of a Joe Cole cross. The first time in particular saw Collins pushed back by Vidic giving him more space to head in. Both were good headers from quality crosses from Cole, but one could not help but feel United looked vulnerable in the air and there is no doubt it will have been felt the goals conceded were soft.
3) Kagawa got a lesson in physical football
With United starting the better of the sides, West Ham came into their own as the half went on. They started to close the visitors down in midfield, not allowing players like Scholes the space to seek out players with passes. It took a more physical, though not rough, turn and Kagawa above all probably suffered the most. The midfielder, only recently returning from injury, found himself closed down and not allowed the chance to move, occasionally getting dispossessed. It was something of an introduction to the physical side of the English game, a lesson as to what Premier League sides can offer.
4) Rafael on the right wing, an interesting idea
With Valencia struggling for form, and Nani out injured, Rafael Da Silva was given a chance to shine down the wing. With the youngster performing well at right back this term, regularly providing a threat down the right, it was worthwhile seeing how he would do when given a wing role. It ended up proving to be probably not the best occasion to showcase what he is capable of. Although much of the play was down the right at times, Smalling, overlapping, appeared to be there and Rafael was on the end of some over hit passes. As the game went on, he appeared to play more out of position as Valencia was introduced.
I think the Brazilian should be given more occasions in that position, if the situation calls for it, but it is unlikely that it will become a regular sight.
5) Giggs can still produce
On Saturday, as has been for much of this season, United have not known when they are beaten. On this occasion, they left it right until the death, with Giggs playing a fantastic cross field ball, pin point to Van Persie, who took a great first touch before finishing and equalising for his side. For all the criticism Giggs has come in for this season, often justified, the game produced a moment where he showed that he still has something to give and is still capable of moments of magic. A phenomenal goal.