LONDON – If the majority of Manchester United and Everton fans had their way, Louis van Gaal and Roberto Martinez would not be in charge of their respective clubs for Saturday’s F.A. Cup semifinal, let alone next season.
This gives a fascinating if morbid edge to the Wembley clash with some supporters even hoping their team loses as it would speed the manager’s departure.
Winning the F.A. Cup would not guarantee van Gaal seeing out the final season of his contract, but it would help the case of Ed Woodward, the executive vice chairman, to retain the Dutchman, though the United power broker is in a minority in his backing of the manager.
Finishing fourth, which guarantees a Champions League place, and a cup triumph would hardly constitute failure, but United fans are simply bored with the football dished up, even though it has proved reasonably successful.
Despite the impact made by teenage striker Marcus Rashford with seven goals in 13 games, United has scored 42 goals in the Premier League, just three more than relegation candidate Sunderland and only twice in its last 11 matches in all competitions has it scored more than one goal in a game.
While Jose Mourinho’s “friends” have been doing their best to unsettle van Gaal and keep the Portuguese in the United frame, the Dutchman is far more likely to retain his job than Martinez, who seems certain to walk the plank whatever Everton’s fate in the F.A. Cup.
Everton — 21 wins in its past 72 Premier League matches — has enough outstanding players to be higher than a mediocre 11th. The Toffees have been particularly poor at home and, apart from too many miserable performances, the concern for Martinez is that Farhad Moshiri recently bought a 49.9 percent share in the club for £87.5 million. When a new majority shareholder comes into a club, a change of manager is usually not far away and the display of the team in the 4-0 defeat at Liverpool on Wednesday underlined that many of the Everton players are clearly not behind Martinez.
It was abysmal, a humiliation with the white flag going up early in the match. Liverpool managed 37 shots to Everton’s three and Martinez did not hold back on the vitriol, saying his side had “an inability to do the basics to participate in a big football match . . . we didn’t cope with the emotions of the occasion” and the defeat left him with “a feeling of embarrassment that we put on a show like this.” He was not alone.
Defeat at Wembley and it will be taxi for Martinez with a possible return for David Moyes, still fondly remembered at Goodison Park despite his ill-fated defection to Manchester United.
Moyes’ former club goes into the semifinal in good form, having lost just one of its last eight matches with a defense that has a Premier League-high 18 shutouts plus home and away victories over Everton this season.
United has momentum, Everton has forgotten how to defend while its attack has lost its cutting edge. It is difficult to put up a reasonable argument for anything other than a victory for United, which would see van Gaal given grudging praise and Martinez left counting the days to his departure.
On Sunday, Watford plays Crystal Palace in what, for those who do not support either team, is very much the other semifinal and harder to call. Watford, promoted last May, has rarely looked in trouble and is a comfortable 12th, which made reports this week that manager Quique Sanchez Flores’ job could be in jeopardy surprising, to say the least.
Both teams have struggled in the league since the turn of the year, playing their best football in the F.A. Cup. Palace knocked out Southampton, Stoke City, Tottenham and Reading on its way to the semifinals with Watford beating Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Leeds before a stunning display quarterfinals at the Emirates knocked out Arsenal.
Watford rested strikers Odion Ighalo and Troy Deeney for its 3-1 midweek defeat at West Ham. Between them Deeney and Ighalo have netted 26 goals this season, but they have been misfiring of late, with Ighalo having just one goal in the league since January while Deeney has just three.
Both sides prefer to play on the counterattack and a cagey game is likely. Palace’s midfield destroyer James McCarthy will have a key role in disrupting the service to Ighalo and Deeney, but the speed of Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie on the wings could be the key to an Eagles victory.
Sad turn: Paul Gascoigne is recovering from yet another battle against the booze. Alcohol can be a powerful opponent that never really goes away, but it is a fight I hope Gascoigne can conquer because despite some negative publicity I believe deep down he is a decent if troubled person.
I first met Gascoigne in 1987 at a youth tournament in Toulon, France, soon after he had broken into the Newcastle team. He was full of energy, always in a good mood even at 6 in the morning, which should be banned. We had an early flight and Gascoigne was tapping kids on the shoulder and then looking away. He would chat to Japanese children who could not understand a word he said yet the smiles on their faces showed the international language of friendship.
One morning I was having coffee with some of the players when Gazza had arranged a runout, leaving yours truly with the bill. Childish? Yes. Fun? Definitely.
When Terry Venables was manager of England, he was unhappy when Gascoigne showed obvious dissatisfaction following his substitution. He called Gazza to see him and the player was full of remorse. “Sorry boss . . . shouldn’t have done it” and as a gesture of goodwill Gascoigne handed Venables a can of lager.
“I’m trying to give him a rollicking, but it was impossible,” said Venables.
Returning from an away game Gascoigne noticed his Tottenham teammate Gary Mabbutt injecting himself.
“What you doing, mun?”
“I’m a diabetic?”
“What’s that you putting in yer arm?”
“How often you have to do that?”
“Twice a day.”
“What, every day?”
“Bet you can’t wait to die.”
Get well soon, Gazza.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5