Manchester United will face Arsenal in the FA Cup sixth round after coming behind to see off Preston North End 3-1 at Deepdale on Monday. It was another deeply unconvincing performance from Louis van Gaal's side, with the final score masking yet more poor football.
United started the game with promise, though despite some early probing from the lively Ángel Di María, they never created anything more than half-chances.
By the halftime whistle, they'd slipped back into the same languid, narrow approach play that has marred most of the season so far, and hadn't drawn a single save from Preston goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann. With the exception of a couple of direct balls over the top, the hosts' defence had looked comfortable.
But if we thought the first half was bad, it was nothing compared to what happened early in the second. Within minutes of the restart Kevin Davies drew Chris Smalling out of position, affording Scott Laird enough space to poke the ball inside United's far post via the fingertips of David de Gea.
This United team don't seem to be able to do anything quickly, so it was hardly surprising that Preston's opener didn't spark any rapid response. On the hour van Gaal responded by throwing Ashley Young into the mix in place of Radamel Falcao, whose magnificent ‘yep, that's really my number on the board' face could well go down as the defining moment of his United career.
However, the rather embarrassing truth is that this United team is considerably more effective with Young in it, and so it proved within minutes of his entrance. He drifted out to the right and pulled the ball back for Ander Herrera, whose scuffed shot from the edge of the area squirmed inside of Stuckmann's far post for 1-1.
The game had opened up at both ends of the field, and United took advantage with a second just seven minutes later. A great Antonio Valencia cross (!) was met at the far post by Marouane Fellaini, who rifled the ball home from point-blank range after his initial header was blocked by the Preston goalkeeper.
After going behind, the hosts were forced into taking greater risks and United found an increasing amount of space up top. Inside the final five minutes Rooney was sent through on goal, only to be tripped by the goalkeeper in the box. He buried the subsequent penalty in the top corner, and the game was finally put beyond doubt. Preston almost netted a consolation in stoppage time, though Young's goalline clearance maintained the two-goal buffer.