Everton 1 Manchester United 2
The brilliance of Anthony Martial in injury-time booked Manchester United a return trip to Wembley after an enthralling semi-final against Everton.
Playing in the FA Cup final at Wembley is the match that all players strive to achieve at least once in their career. Even the foreign players understand how special it is to appear in the season-ending showpiece.
Representing a last chance of a trophy this season for both sides gave the game that extra bite as United looked to overcome an Everton side who themselves have had a poor campaign.
Both Louis van Gaal and Roberto Martinez have endured a torrid time of it this season with criticism coming in heavy from the media and more importantly the fans for poor tactics and team selection. So it is a pretty safe bet to assume that at least one of them will not be at the helm next season even if they do manage to lift the cup come May.
With almost a fully fit squad to choose from van Gaal decided to pick this as his starting XI: De Gea, Fosu-Mensah, Blind, Smalling, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Rooney, Lingard, Martial and Rashford.
A few eyebrows were raised when the starting team was announced, but there was only one change from the side that beat West Ham in the quarter-final replay and that was Rooney in place of Herrera.
Fellaini was picked to partner Carrick in midfield. Carrick had endured a tough game up against Barkley in the recent league encounter, but this time around he would get the upper-hand.
The trio of Schneiderlin, Herrera and Mata would start on the bench. After scoring his first goal for the club in midweek Darmian would also be on the sidelines and the promising Fosu-Mensah would start in his place at right-back. Rojo returned to the lineup at left-back to make his 50th appearance for the Red Devils.
Rooney made his 20th appearance for United in midfield against his boyhood club and had the youngsters Lingard, Martial and Rashford ahead of him in attack.
United kicked off the match and within the first five minutes, either side could of and should have taken the lead. The first chance fell to Fellaini who headed a Blind corner too weakly straight into the keepers arms then it was Lukaku who raced down the other end and managed to beat De Gea only to see his goal-bound effort brilliantly headed off the line by captain Rooney.
An inswinging free-kick by Rooney was met in the box by Rojo but his header went wide. The match had started with the two sides on the attack and you felt that both defences were going to be kept busy throughout the game.
The speed of United’s attack was breathtaking at times and this was proven when Lingard beat the offside trap and connected with a ball over the top from Rooney that unfortunately was aimed straight at the keeper, who gratefully collected.
Lukaku had a second chance to put the Toffees in the lead, but De Gea blocked his shot after he had raced past Smalling and latched onto a ball from United old boy Cleverley. How many chances were the Reds going to give the Belgian forward?
The fast pace of the game would truly test the fitness of Rooney, who had only just returned to the team after a long injury. He was covering every blade of grass of the big Wembley pitch, in his deeper lying role.
There was a great chance for Martial after a neat passing move, however, when the ball arrived at his feet, he blasted well over the bar from the left side of the penalty area. It really could have been at least 2-2 within the first twenty minutes.
A nod down by Fellaini from a Blind cross fell to the feet of Rashford who side-footed a shot straight at the keeper.
After half an hour and a frantic start to the match Everton managed to slow the proceedings down until the 34th minute when United attacked the left side of the penalty area through the lively pair of Rashford and Martial and when the latter pulled the ball back there was Fellaini to sweep the ball into the net to put United into the lead against his former club. It was no less than United had deserved after their penetrating attacking play.
Half-time and United led by the Fellaini goal and enjoyed a half that was full of attacking play and it was a surprise that it was only 1-0. Martial had a superb half down the left and looked dangerous every time United went forward.
Everton looked poor in defence, especially the full-backs and apart from the two chances for Lukaku were not on the same level as United and if they managed to keep the score down to only one goal it would be a surprise.
Everton started the second half with United hoping to build on their dominance of the first half with no changes having been made by either manager.
The blues started the half brightly and mounted a few forays into the opposition’s area to no effect as the United defenders were on their toes to any danger.
There was a golden opportunity that fell to Lingard, but the youngster snapped at his shot from a great position and it had to be put down to a wasted chance.
In the 56th minute controversy hit the match after Fosu-Mensah was adjudged to have brought down Barkley inside the area which he clearly hadn’t but referee Taylor decided to award a spot kick.
Up stepped Lukaku who blasted a shot towards the bottom left-hand corner. However, there was that man De Gea to save at full stretch and deny the Toffees an unworthy equaliser. Justice was definitely served and United was once again grateful to the Spanish keeper.
Soon after the penalty miss van Gaal replaced Fosu-Mensah with Valencia.
The penalty miss seemed to provide Everton with more confidence as they piled the pressure on United and had a real go. For all their effort couldn’t find a way past United’s defence.
There was yet another penalty shout in the 66th minute this time against Jagielka who clearly handled the ball while falling to the ground by the near post under pressure from Fellaini. In all honesty Jagielka should have seen red as well but the referee turned a blind eye to the incident.
Everton at least tried to make more of a game of it and United was caught out in the 75th minute as Smalling unwittingly diverted a wicked low cross into his own net to make the score level.
The Blues were by now on the front foot as United tried to regroup and start all over again. Would they rue the missed chances in the first half?
De Gea was on hand again to palm away an effort from the substitute Deulofeu. Then Lukaku missed yet another chance to put his side ahead when he should really have scored. That was at least his fourth attempt on goal not including the penalty.
As the match entered the final five minutes Martial delivered a smart low cross from the left that Lingard was only inches away from tucking away. This was certainly a game of missed chances as both sides pounded each others area.
Van Gaal made a change in the last four minutes when he brought on Herrera for scorer Fellaini and his first taste of action was to be booked for a rugby tackle on Barkley, who was also cautioned for complaining.
An outstanding game still had one twist in the tale as late as the 92nd minute. Martial started a move from the left-hand touchline and played two one-twos first with Rashford then with Herrera. He collected Herrera’s fortunate flick on and strode confidently into the box and as cool as you like slid the ball past the keeper into the bottom corner to send United deliriously into the final.
A goal made and finished by the sensational French striker whose all-round display was brilliant, to say the least. The only downside was the yellow card he received for his celebrations with the United faithful. A ridiculous rule that has to be changed.
An astonishing end to a match that had all the ingredients you would expect from a cup tie. Drama and excitement with no end of chances for both sides and a penalty save to boot.
On another day, Lukaku would have netted at least one of his many chances and the same goes for Lingard, who must be grateful to Martial for eventually grabbing the winner.
Fosu-Mensah and Smalling will also be thanking their teammates De Gea and Martial for saving their blushes.
As a team it has to be said that to a man the whole United side played superbly well and deserve so much credit for keeping their heads when Everton turned the screw during the second-half. At both ends United had two main heroes in De Gea and Martial, but it is the Frenchman that takes my vote for the man of the match award for topping off a mesmerising display with his cool late, late finish.
In the end, it will be United who return to Wembley at the end of the domestic season looking to end the long wait to lift the old trophy for the first time since 2004.
That’s all for now as I’m off to catch my breath.
Thanks for reading.