This season’s cup competitions are providing Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal with the opportunity to visit some of England’s more obscure footballing outposts in his first year in Britain.
After a stunning 4-0 loss at third-tier Milton Keynes Dons in the second round of the League Cup in August, Van Gaal and his team have been sent to two more unheralded lower-league teams in the FA Cup.
United was hardly convincing in eliminating third-tier Yeovil and fourth-tier Cambridge – after a replay – in the past two rounds. Next up for England’s biggest club is a trip to Preston North End, which plays in the third division and is the club that United sent David Beckham on loan to as a 19-year-old – before he returned to Old Trafford to begin his illustrious top-flight career.
The draw has been kind to Van Gaal as he looks to claim his first trophy as United manager, and he’s also been helped by one of the most stunning set of results in the FA Cup’s proud history.
Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton and Tottenham were all humbled in the fourth round, throwing the cup wide open.
The biggest threats to United are fierce rival Liverpool, which visits Crystal Palace on Saturday in one of three all-Premier League matchups in the last 16, and FA Cup holder Arsenal, which is at home on Sunday to Middlesbrough – the second-tier team that knocked out Man City. United plays Preston on Monday.
Here are some other things to know about the fifth round:
Wayne Rooney hasn’t scored in 2015 and has picked up more yellow cards than goals in his last 13 games for Man United. He is on his longest run without a goal for United since 2006.
It comes as no surprise, given that the player who will likely finish his career as the top all-time scorer for United and England is being played in midfield as Van Gaal looks to accommodate all his squad’s star attackers.
Rooney has played attacking midfield, right midfield, central midfield – and even as a holding midfielder in the 3-1 league win over Burnley on Wednesday.
”Maybe he can better play in a striker’s position,” Van Gaal said, ”but then I have a problem in midfield.”
With Daley Blind joining Michael Carrick on the sidelines, Rooney could start at the base of a midfield diamond against Preston, which is a founding member of the football league and won the league-FA Cup double in its inaugural season, in 1888-89.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers must decide whether Mario Balotelli’s late winning goal against Tottenham in the league as a substitute on Tuesday is enough to earn the Italy striker a return to the starting lineup against Palace.
Rodgers may not want to start Daniel Sturridge for the second time in five days because the England international has just returned from five months out injured.
With Raheem Sterling nursing a foot injury, the door could be open for a first start for Balotelli since November. Sturridge raised the possibility of starting alongside Balotelli, which happened once – to great effect in a big away win at Tottenham – before his injury.
”I am sure we will strike up a partnership in the future, I have no doubts about that,” Sturridge said.
Aston Villa begins life without Paul Lambert in a home match against Leicester, after the manager was fired on Wednesday.
The FA Cup had provided Villa and Lambert with some respite from its miserable campaign in the Premier League, where it is in the bottom three after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss at Hull. The team has scored just one goal in eight league games, and Lambert’s departure was inevitable.
The first thing that Villa’s caretaker coaches, Scott Marshall and Andy Marshall, may do is recall top striker Christian Benteke to the team after the Belgium international was dropped against Hull.
On Saturday, Stoke travels to second-tier Blackburn, West Bromwich Albion hosts West Ham, and a non-Premier League team is guaranteed a spot in the quarterfinals when Derby plays Reading.
Bradford was rewarded for beating Chelsea in the last 32 with a home match against Sunderland on Sunday.