An FA Cup tournament of few major upsets will see its winner crowned on Saturday as Crystal Palace and Manchester United contest the final, where both sides will be hoping to gain some form of redemption following a season of relative underachievement.
It is a repeat of the final in 1990, the last to ever go to a replay. A late goal from Mark Robins broke Palace hearts as it denied them the chance to lift the famous trophy for the first time in their history, and Man Utd won it the second time around, an intervention that is also famous for reputedly keeping the now legendary Sir Alex Ferguson in a job.
Over a quarter of a century on, it may also be the case for Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman has been skating on thin ice all season as almost constant speculation surrounding his apparently imminent departure has raged on, and his job security lowered just that little bit more at the end of the Premier League season as United inexplicably missed out a place in the top four. Many believe that van Gaal will be on his way regardless of the result here.
The style of football from the Red Devils remains a subject of hefty derision, but in recent times exciting individuals and key players have come to the fore, with nobody more central to their presence in the final than Anthony Martial. The French starlet was almost unplayable as he inspired victory in the fourth round at Derby County, and more recently took Everton to the cleaners in the semi-final, where he also scored a late winner to cap a man of the match performance. Palace right-back Joel Ward will surely have his work cut out for this one.
Of course, the impact of youngsters has also been a major boost. Marcus Rashford has made such an impression that he was named in England’s preliminary squad for Euro 2016, and will start in attack looking to add to his tally of eight goals since breaking through in February. Meanwhile, Jesse Lingard has always shown himself to be full of confidence in his own ability, so this may just be the time for him to make that starring contribution.
But one man cannot be forgotten, and indeed that is the captain Wayne Rooney. He has returned from injury in time to feature at Wembley after serving a reminder of the level of influence he can provide to the team by helping to see off Bournemouth in their impromptu midweek fixture. It is the last major trophy that the 30-year-old has yet to win during his lengthy spell at Old Trafford, while a three-year silverware drought represents a dramatic malaise for a club that sets such high standards. It is a chance that must not be allowed to slip away.
For Crystal Palace, it looked set to be a season to remember as they headed into Christmas very much in the battle for a European place, but a dramatic loss of form following the turn of the year meant they had a fight on their hands to stay in the Premier League, eventually finishing in 15th place. However, during that barren spell they saved their best displays for the FA Cup, prevailing from a number of difficult ties to confirm their place in this final.
Superb victories at Southampton and Tottenham came in between a narrow home success over Stoke City. Questions were asked of the Eagles at Reading in the quarter-finals before they came through thanks to two late goals, while their last four meeting with Watford was an occasion they handled admirably, making the most of their aerial strength and pace in wide areas.
That will be their primary source of threat here as Yannick Bolasie aims to set about using his lightning pace to unsettle a Man Utd defence that has kept its fair share of clean sheets this term, including in both Premier League meetings between the sides. On the other side Wilfried Zaha has had a bit of a race against time to be fit, but has always been a man for the big occasion and will have no shortage of motivation due to his ill-fated spell with the 10-times winners.
From deeper positions, the creativity will come from the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Jason Puncheon, who can also cause devastation with their set-piece delivery. Scott Dann boasts the best scoring record of any central defender in the top-flight, so represents an obvious danger from corners and free-kicks in a game which for all of its intrigue with regards to the respective styles on show, could boil down to such moments.
The Londoners are without Joe Ledley, who fractured a leg in the recent win over Stoke, but fellow midfielder Mile Jedinak will be fit to play a part. Manager Alan Pardew – loser in the FA Cup final a decade ago in 2006 and part of that side that was thwarted in 1990 – is set to make changes from the last Premier League match of the season at Southampton.
Man Utd are expected to be unchanged from the side that saw off Bournemouth, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luke Shaw both certain to miss out despite returning to training.