On Saturday evening, Conference side Crawley Town FC will make the trek to Old Trafford to face Premier League leaders Manchester United in 5th round FA Cup action. On the surface, it appears to be the classic David versus Goliath FA Cup battle that lends itself to endearment to football fans throughout England and beyond. Crawley Town, who also share the nickname of Red Devils, currently sit 2nd in the table in England's 5th highest football division, however, they have four games in hand on leaders AFC Wimbledon. They've defeated Derby County, Swindon Town, and Torquay United thus far to earn their passage to the final 16 of the FA Cup. United, who have won the FA Cup a record 11 times, earned their way after fighting their way back from a late deficit to defeat Southampton at St. Mary's Stadium; needing 2nd half goals from Michael Owen and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez.
Naturally, most FA Cup loving neutrals will be supporting Crawley Town, and in the words of their manager Steve Evans, hoping to witness " the biggest shock the world has ever seen." However, there will certainly be a few keen neutral observers who are aware that Crawley isn't your typical Conference side, and that they actually might be the "Manchester City of the Conference." As the linked article states, don't be surprised if you hear lazy journalists spew "magic of the cup" rhetoric; just don't be fooled. In their clear ambition to climb the ranks of English football, the flush with cash Crawley have spent more money on individual players than some division rivals have spent on their entire squads. Their budget is comparable to clubs in League One. This has caused some bitter resentment and is the basis of the disdain by many against Crawley.
More after the jump...
Furthermore, much has been made about the Crawley supporter arrested for his Munich disaster taunts, which certainly hasn't endeared the club to neutrals. Granted, every club have a few bad apples among their supporters, but this isn't the attention a club who's recently received so much negative notoriety needs. All of this certainly makes it easier for United supporters to come out and passionately root against a Conference side. I suspect the Stretford End will be prepared.
Basing my information from the database at football-lineups.com, it's clear that Crawley play in a '4-4-2' shape. The database also show a few rare occasions where they came out in a '4-3-3' and '5-4-1.' The most prolific player for Crawley is striker Matthew Tubbs, who has 29 goals in 26 matches. The 26 year-old striker bagged 28 goals last season for Salisbury City as well, and his former clubs include Bolton Wanderers and Bournemouth. Craig McAllister has also provided the Conference side with 11 goals in 17 matches.
United have injury concerns ahead of the FA Cup match. Park Ji-Sung is out due to a hamstring injury suffered in training. Owen suffered a groin injury in training this week and it appears that he might miss the remainder of United's season. Owen Hargreaves continues to be out with every injury known to the medical field. Rio Ferdinand is out due to a calf injury suffered in warmups at Blackpool. Antonio Valencia continues to be unavailable as the Ecuadorian just resumed training this week with the reserves. Jonny Evans is questionable, as he was unavailable for last weekend's derby versus City due to an ankle injury.
*UPDATE* Evans ruled out. Wes Brown could deputy.
I might as well throw darts at the wall in my attempts to guess lineups. United have a mid-week UEFA Champions League matchup on Wednesday at Marseille, and that undoubtedly will be the priority for Sir Alex Ferguson when assessing lineup choices. With the limited availability of wide players, Fergie could get creative again with his lineup as he did versus Southampton, when he unveiled a '4-1-2-1-2' (4-4-2 diamond) shape in order to compensate, but that was a tactical disaster. My guess is that Fergie will rest many regulars, but include influential attacking players among his substitutions in the case that he needs to turn the match in the 2nd half. Before the injuries to Park and Owen, I would have anticipated a '4-4-2' shape for United, but because of the match at Marseille on Wednesday and a lack of available strikers and wide players, I'm going to guess Fergie rolls out a '4-3-3' or possibly even a '4-2-3-1.' If United need to chase goals in the 2nd half, Fergie could switch to a '4-4-2' and have the option of bringing on Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, and Nani. Dimitar Berbatov could start after only coming on as a substitute versus City. I just don't anticipate Fergie using many of his regulars for 90 minutes. But this is a very difficult projection. Here's a lineup guess....
*UPDATE #2* Because of Evans now being ruled out, there are a number of possibilities in defense. Either/both John O'Shea and Wes Brown could fill-in at center-back, thus giving a rest to Smalling. However, O'Shea or Rafael are likely to be featured at right-back at Marseille, so Fergie might elect to rest one of them and not risk injury to both. But the same injury risks apply to Smalling for Marseille, due to the health concerns to Ferdinand and Evans. This is a tricky decision for Fergie.
*UPDATE #3* Fergie said according to the Guardian, "We'll be playing all the players who played at Southampton, apart from Jonny Evans and Michael Owen. We'll hopefully bring in Bebe, the two Da Silvas, Wes Brown, and John O'Shea. We're strong in midfield, we've got Anderson, Darron Gibson and Michael Carrick, and then there's Chicharito, so we're not too bad." United has also called in Ryan Tunnicliffe from the youth squad, and Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba, and Joshua King could be considered as well. I'd now guess Brown and O'Shea at center-back, with the twins at full-back. I'd also guess Obertan to start with Chicharito and Bebe in the attack. The midfield will likely include Ando, Gibson, and Carrick. So essentially the same lineup guess I had before, but Brown and O'Shea at center-backs instead of Evans and Smalling.
Odds: Manchester United 1/16, Draw 8/1, Crawley Town 28/1
Prediction: Manchester United 2-0 Crawley Town