Preston North End 1
Manchester United 3
Herrera 65, Fellaini 72, Rooney 88
By Alex Wood
AS England manager Roy Hodgson completed the FA Cup quarter final draw minutes prior to Preston’s eagerly anticipated fifth-round tie against visitors Manchester United, 24, 500 fans packed into a full-capacity Deepdale stadium – that was already brimming with excitement - erupted in a chorus of cheers.
Having booked the winner of this evening’s fixture into a mouth-watering quarter-final against Arsenal, Hodgson had provided the League One side - as if facing the mighty Red Devils wasn’t quite enough - with even more incentive to progress to the next round. With the final few fans taking to their seats ahead of kick-off, the atmosphere inside the ground was electric; the stage was set.
The opening minutes, as was to be expected, were frantic. Preston, buoyed by the jeers of the home crowd, desperately tried to settle on the ball while United, in the face of such hostility, struggled to exert any form of superiority.
It was North End forward Joe Garner who fired the first shot on target of the game, scuffing an effort at goalkeeper David De Gea from 25-yards who was able to gather the ball rather comfortably. While the shot lacked any real purchase, it served as a clear warning shot to the defensive partnership of Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling who had allowed Garner the space and time to test the Spaniard shot-stopper.
The Reds very nearly opened the scoring minutes later, however. Having conceded a needless foul on the edge of the 18-yard box, United winger Angel Di Maria – who has struggled to replicate the explosive form he so often exhibited at Real Madrid – stepped up and whipped the ball in. Reserve goalkeeper Thorsten Struckmann, who was left rooted to the spot, breathed a huge sigh of relief as the Argentinian’s effort curled inches wide.
Despite a number of half-chances throughout the first half, including a couple of blocked shots by skipper Wayne Rooney, a lethargic United side ultimately failed to turn their sustained pressure into goals. Radamel Falcao, for all his efforts, was largely contained by the defensive duo of Tom Clarke and Paul Huntington while Di Maria, who was deployed on the left side of midfield, was often forced back into his own half to retrieve the ball.
As referee Phil Dowd blew his whistle to signify half-time, both sides trudged off the field locked at 0-0 in what had been a rather dull, flat opening 45 minutes. The fans, who were presumably stood up clapping in order to keep warm as opposed to in appreciation of the game, would have certainly been hoping for better after the break. It’s not as if things could have got much worse…
…And, as the second half got underway, Preston North End certainly did not disappoint. With only two minutes played since the break, veteran striker Kevin Davies received the ball and flicked it into the path of winger Scott Laird. The 26-yeard left wing-back took one touch before firing a low-driven shot towards goal which, having taken a slight defection off Antonio Valencia’s boot, beat a sprawling De Gea to send the home fans into absolute delirium.
1-0 to Preston North End, would you believe it? Could another famous FA Cup giant-killing be on the cards? The home crowd, and surely any neutrals watching on from around the country, certainly believed so.
If anything, the scoring of a goal actually opened up the contest. Preston desperately searched for a second to double their lead while their Premier League counterparts needed to find a goal in order to level the tie. As Falcao departed the field of play following another miserable night in a red shirt in the 60th minute, to be replaced by wide-man Ashley Young, United finally started to find their feet in the game.
Di Maria hit a swerving shot from 30-yards that was easily smothered by Struckmann before Belgian big-man Marouane Fellaini tried his luck with a half-hearted shot that was blocked by Huntington, who was proving a rock at the core of Preston’s defence.
United’s pressure, however, paid off in the 65th minute. Young’s arrival seemed to instil a sense of urgency within the side and it was the substitute, in fact, who was able to find the feet of Ander Herrera on the edge of the box. The Spaniard shimmied the ball onto his left before pulling the trigger, expertly angling his shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal past the outstretched hands of Struckmann.
No more than five minutes later, the Reds scored again to take a 2-1 lead. Valencia burst down the right flank and crossed an inviting ball into the area that Fellaini met with a powerful header, forcing Struckmann to make a save. The goalkeeper parried the ball back towards the Belgian who was able to toe-poke the rebound into the roof of the net to extinguish any Preston dreams of a quarter-final against the Gunners.
While Fellaini went close to scoring again for United moments later, it was the captain, Rooney, who claimed the Reds’ third. Having peeled away from Huntington’s advances to go through on goal, the England striker was hauled down in the box by an over-committed Struckmann and was awarded a penalty.
Despite failing to find the back of the net in 2015, Rooney thumped the ball high into the top right-hand corner of the goal with all the confidence of an in-form striker, giving the ‘keeper no chance of making a save.
Preston very nearly set up an interesting finale by snatching a second goal in the game’s dying minutes. A corner went in from the right and Laird flicked it on at the near post but De Gea was on hand to make a save and Young managed to clear the ball before it crossed the line as referee Phil Dowd blew the final whistle.
It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fluid and it certainly wasn’t a performance to fill United fans with confidence but that’s one defeat in 19 games for Louis van Gaal's side now. While tonight marks another game where the Reds haven’t necessarily impressed with their overall play, they are nevertheless into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and can now look forward to hosting Arsenal at Old Trafford on 7th March.
Preston North End (3-5-2): 21 Thorsten Stuckmann; 5 Tom Clarke (c), 23 Paul Huntington, 6 Bailey Wright (75’ 17 Kyel Reid); 8 Neil Kilkenny (75’ 27 Callum Robinson), 7 Chris Humphrey, 19 John Welsh, 12 Paul Gallagher, 3 Scott Laird; 9 Kevin Davies (75’ 4 Scott Wiseman), 14 Joe Garner
Substitutes (unused): 35 Matthew Hudson (GK), 22 Jack King, 30 Josh Brownhill, 40 Sylvan Ebanks-Blake
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): 1 David De Gea; 3 Luke Shaw, 5 Marcos Rojo, 12 Chris Smalling, 25 Antonio Valencia; 17 Daley Blind, 21 Ander Herrera; 7 Angel Di Maria, 31 Marouane Fellaini, 10 Wayne Rooney (c); 9 Radamel Falcao (60’ 18 Ashley Young)
Substitutes (unused): 32 Victor Valdes (GK), 6 Jonny Evans, 8 Juan Mata, 11 Adnan Januzaj, 33 Patrick McNair, 49 James Wilson