Manchester United made easy work of League One Shrewsbury Town to give temporary relief to embattled manager Louis van Gaal and secure an FA Cup quarter-final with West Ham at Old Trafford.
Van Gaal, with speculation still rife that he is to be replaced by ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, knew defeat by a Shrewsbury side lying 21st in their division was unthinkable – and possibly terminal for his employment prospects.
United, instead, gave their manager a comfortable night as they strolled into the last eight, with Chris Smalling’s scuffed shot and Juan Mata’s smart free-kick giving them a half-time advantage they never threatened to surrender.
Shrewsbury barely gave United an anxious moment – although Abu Ogogo had an effort scrambled off the line by United substitute Joe Riley as well as heading wide late on – and victory was wrapped up when Jesse Lingard turned in Ander Herrera’s shot just after the hour.
United’s injury problems worsened when substitute Will Keane came off leaving the visitors to play the last 14 minutes with 10 men.
Re-live the action as it happened
Easy street for Van Gaal
Memories of the day Kevin Ratcliffe’s Shrewsbury Town side shocked an Everton team 80 places above them in the league ladder in the FA Cup third round in January 2003 were revived before kick-off – but there was no chance of a repeat.
United may have struggled to make their supremacy count, although keeper Jayson Leutwiler saved well from Memphis Depay and Ogogo scrambled Antony Martial’s effort off the line, but once they were ahead through Smalling after 37 minutes this was all over as a contest.
They were helped by a Shrewsbury side who seemed overawed by the occasion.
Van Gaal will be both relieved and delighted to leave Shropshire unscathed – another crisis averted, for now at least.
Can FA Cup revive United’s season?
United have lifted the FA Cup 11 times, the last of which was when they won 3-0 against Millwall in Cardiff in 2004 – but can they relieve the gloom of this season by claiming the trophy for the first time in 12 years?
They have a tough quarter-final task against West Ham United, with Slaven Bilic’s side looking impressive after putting out Liverpool after a replay and thrashing Blackburn Rovers 5-1 at Ewood Park in the fifth round.
United are at home, however, and just one match from a Wembley semi-final.
In the short-term at least, this win stops the rot after those damaging losses away to Sunderland and FC Midtjylland in the Europa League horror show in Denmark.
Van Gaal’s attention can now turn to overturning the Danish side’s 2-1 advantage, as this was a rare night of relaxation for the under-pressure Dutchman.
Man of the match – Juan Mata (Manchester United)
Juan Mata’s goal was his first direct free-kick for Manchester United since December 2014. He also made eight key passes during the game – more than any other player.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal on BBC Sport: “I was very pleased. We have played 70 minutes fantastic, in a professional way, creating chances and scoring goals. After 70 we were with 10 and it was more difficult.
“It [injuries] was unbelievably unlucky again. The players were very committed to perform and you see what is the consequence.
“Everyone shall say United have to win against Shrewsbury. For the players it is fantastic because we are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.
“We are in all the competitions, just six points behind Manchester City, we have a lot of chances, a lot of titles to fight for. It isn’t easy because we have to win a lot of games but it is still possible.”
Shrewsbury boss Micky Mellon, talking to BT Sport: “We have to say about the quality of Manchester United, it was absolutely fantastic.
“I couldn’t have asked more of the players – we just came up against a team of utmost quality.
“I haven’t seen the free-kick back. We have to come away from this, say it has been a fantastic cup run. We gave it everything but, playing against quality like that, it wasn’t going to be enough.”
The stats you need to know
- Smalling scored his first ever FA Cup goal in what is his 20th appearance in the competition.
- This was Smalling’s 39th club appearance of the season (all competitions) – more than any other Premier League player.
- Mata has had a hand in 16 goals (eight goals, nine assists) in 17 FA Cup appearances.
- Mata scored his first direct free-kick for Manchester United since 2 December 2014.
- United have lost just one of their last 46 FA Cup games against lower-league opposition, with that solitary defeat coming at home to Leeds in January 2010 (W38 D7 L1).
- United have now won the last seven FA Cup fifth round ties that they have been involved in.
- This was the 50th consecutive FA Cup match involving United to be broadcast live on English television. The last not to be was on 8 January 2005 versus Exeter City.
United’s hopes of a Champions League place via the Europa League hang in the balance as they host FC Midtjylland on Thursday, with the Danish side carrying a 2-1 lead. The Shrews are away at bottom side Colchester next Saturday.
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