Match Odds: Crystal Palace 4/1, The Draw 12/5, Man Utd 3/4
Cup Winner: Crystal Palace 21/10, Manchester United 33/100
Should Manchester United justify their sizeable favouritism in the FA Cup betting by beating Crystal Palace, it may well be to one of the more muted reactions from victorious players and supporters in the competition’s 145-year history.
Lifting the world’s oldest knockout trophy for the first time since 2004 would see the Red Devils equal Arsenal as its most prolific winners, but it would also improve manager Louis van Gaal’s chances of seeing out his contract at Old Trafford.
In recent days reports have begun to surface that various senior figures on the playing staff are basing decisions on where they wish to play their football next season on whether or not United retain the Iron Tulip for the 2016/17 campaign.
The club’s three-time reigning player of the year David de Gea and 2008 Champions-League-winning midfielder are the Michael Carrick are the men keen to leave should he stay on.
Such ambivalence has been reflected in the stands, where the now-dead prospect of United securing fourth place in the league was viewed almost with trepidation given the likelihood that it would lead to a third term at the helm for the Dutchman.
That tales of De Gea and Carrick’s unrest reached the press in the days before what has become the most important fixture in the Reds’ season does not seem indicative of a camp ‘united’ and focused on their pursuit of victory at Wembley.
Such is the quality available to Van Gaal that they may not need to be, but the fact that all may not be harmonious also offers Crystal Palace hope.
Win, Lose or Draw?
Looking at the sides’ head-to-head ledger since the Eagles’ return to the Premier League in 2013/14 it’s not hard to see why United are overwhelming favourites.
South-east London’s finest have done a good job of resembling a team stuck in the misapprehension that the Red Devils are still managed by Sir Alex Ferguson.
They did at least manage to stem a tide of four overly-respectful losses this term with a 0-0 draw at Selhurst in October, before reverting to type with a defeat to nil at Old Trafford in late April.
Although seemingly nothing more than an outlier in that sequence of beatings, that stalemate may actually be a truer indication of the sides’ relative merits than the defeat that followed it.
Palace’s April reverse at Old Trafford came when both teams had FA Cup semis in their very next game, with the visitors understandably more preoccupied than their history-toting hosts with the prospect.
Alan Pardew will leave his troops in little doubt as to how much this brush with immortality means to players who are far from guaranteed to witness another occasion like this in their careers.
With key United operators at loggerheads with Van Gaal and the Reds playing a possession-hogging brand of football that plays right into Palace’s counter-attack-loving feet there’s every chance the Londoners will be either singing or still in there swinging after 90 minutes.
Both teams arrive at the showpiece on an entertaining spree of results, with the Reds’ last two outings producing 2-3 and 3-1 scorelines and the Eagles’ most recent pair ending 2-1 and 1-4.
However, just one of their last six meetings has produced more than two goals, while of the total of ten scored across that sequence, four were penalties.
Who will do the damage?
If this Palace dream really is to come to fruition then they’ll need someone to find the net at some point.
While Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha are their most celebrated attackers, neither have Jason Puncheon’s knack of scoring against aristocratic opposition.
During the 2014/15 campaign he struck against Tottenham, Manchester City, United and Liverpool.
Injury has limited his exploits this term, but he has now bagged twice in his last seven outings, including last time out against Southampton.
Of the nine finals to be played at the new Wembley Stadium, all bar one have been decided by the odd goal, with six of those eight matches decided without recourse to extra time.