Chasing a gilded finale to a difficult season, Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United face an Everton team reeling from Merseyside derby humiliation in Saturday’s first FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
Van Gaal found himself back in the media’s crosshairs following a 3-0 defeat at Tottenham Hotspur earlier this month, but not for the first time this season, his side responded with a timely burst of wins.
Victory at West Ham United in their FA Cup quarter-final replay provided the spur for back-to-back league wins over Aston Villa and Crystal Palace that have bolstered United’s quest for Champions League qualification and they will travel to London with renewed confidence.
“We are further than last year,” Van Gaal said of his side’s FA Cup progress. “Then it was the quarter-final, now it is the semi-final. It means we are better than last year.
“We are in the semi-final and still in the race for fourth. That was our aim.”
A long, dark English winter is threatening to burst into a far more pleasant spring for Van Gaal, who is seeking to steer United to a first FA Cup final since they lost 1-0 to Chelsea in 2007.
Uncertainty surrounding the Dutchman’s Old Trafford future continues to swirl, with Jose Mourinho and Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino continually touted as potential successors in the British press.
But success in the FA Cup, which United last lifted in 2004, allied to a top-four finish in the Premier League would strengthen Van Gaal’s hand greatly as he approaches the final year of his three-year contract.
Furthermore, United’s line-up in recent weeks has demonstrated the commitment to youth that helped Van Gaal land the job in the first place.
Marcus Rashford, the 18-year-old striker who only made his debut in February, continues to play, and score, with the coolness of a seasoned professional and his displays have been supplemented by the verve of fellow forwards Anthony Martial, 20, and 23-year-old Jesse Lingard.
The trio’s displays have meant that captain Wayne Rooney, back in action after a knee injury, has had to drop into a midfield role, which is where he is likely to play if selected against his old club on Saturday.