LONDON — 10-man Manchester United beat Crystal Palace 2-1 after extra time in the FA Cup Final at Wembley on Saturday to seal their first piece of silverware since 2013.
Louis Van Gaal‘s men battled until the end and dug deep to clinch a record-equaling 12th FA Cup trophy.
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In front of 88,619 supporters a slow burner played out with Palace going ahead in the 78th minute through Jason Puncheon, then Juan Mata replied three minutes later to level things up. Chris Smalling was sent off in extra time but then academy product Jesse Lingard delivered a superb volley win the FA Cup with nine minutes to go.
Van Gaal and his players danced were dancing with joy at the final whistle as they won a first trophy since the Sir Alex Ferguson era ended.
Here’s what we learned from a tense, encapsulating encounter at Wembley.
RASHFORD IS READY
Marcus Rashford is just 18 years old. He only made his debut 86 days ago and the teenage sensation proved on the biggest stage he can deliver. He did it again on Saturday at Wembley with a fine individual display which was cut short 20 minutes from full time with a knee injury. Early on he ran at Palace’s defense whenever he could, scaring the life out of them with his raw pace as Damien Delaney just did enough to concede a corner and Pape Souare blocked another Rasford effort soon after. In the 33rd minute Rashford raced clear on the right flank, surged into the box and squared for Anthony Martial who had his goalbound shot blocked by Joel Ward.
At the start of the second half Scott Dann lunged into a challenge with Rasford but the teenager simply shrugged him off, turned and continued running towards goal with Dann on his back. The Palace center back was correctly booked as the local lad from Manchester showed he has power to go with his pace. Rashford then set up Fellaini with a delightful backheel but the Belgian struck the woodwork. Everything good that United did went through Rashford and he’s high on confidence after making the most of his opportunity in the team when injuries arrived a few months ago. He’s scored eight goals in 18 appearances but he showed a maturity on a huge occasion.
Since Rashford was included in England’s provisional 26-man squad for the 2016 European Championships in France this summer, plenty want the youngster to go to France to provide the Three Lions with a wildcard. On this showing, Rashford might not only provide a wildcard. He’d do an admirable job from the start and has a bright future ahead of him. That’s of course if he’s fit and recovers in time to be part of Roy Hodgson’s squad.
BONUS: Another player Hodgson may look at in the future, or even to replace Rashford in the squad if he’s injured, is Lingard. The 23-year-old winger came off the bench and belted in a stunning volley in the second half of extra time to win the cup for United and like Rashford, the academy product has been given a chance under Van Gaal.
Look at this strike. You beauty.
ROONEY UP AND DOWN IN DEEP ROLE
Speaking of the England squad, United and England’s skipper Wayne Rooney was deployed in a central midfield once again.
Rooney, 30, enjoyed dropping deep, picking up the ball and dictating the tempo of the game. In the first half he was going back to the center backs to collect the ball and along with Michael Carrick he got on the ball as often as possible. His range of passing is sublime. His cutting, curving balls in behind Palace’s right back position caused plenty of problems. Yet, too often he couldn’t provide the killer final ball as he and Carrick enjoyed plenty of possession but it could be argued they didn’t do much with it.
Well, he did plenty in the 82nd minute as he kept running and running and running until he got free on the right hand side of the box and then clipped over a perfectly weighted ball which Marouane Fellaini nodded down for Mata to volley home. Rooney’s role in that goal was pivotal as his name was chanted by fans as he thrust his arms into the air in delight. On multiple occasions Rooney also arrived as United’s last line of defense, making two last ditch tackles in the box. He made telling contributions when it mattered most and United’s talisman led them to their first trophy since Fergie left.
Rooney tried plenty of passes which didn’t come off too and after playing for over a decade as a forward, his role as a central midfield will take time for him to fully adapt to. Strangely he seemed to have a particular problem with short, easy passes. That will come with time as he fine tunes his midfield role. He’s admitted himself in recent weeks that he sees his future in midfield because even as his pace dissipates, his footballing brain will continue to figure out the new demands placed upon him. He led United superbly on Saturday and the quality he possesses on the ball was arguably the difference between the two teams.
There’s been plenty of debate about where Rooney will play this summer for England. The Three Lions’ skipper simply has to start at EURO 2016. Plenty agree that he deserves that. However, the big question remains where he can slot in. He no longer seems to be among Hodgson’s choices up front with Harry Kane, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy and perhaps Rashford vying for those spots. Given his performance at Wembley and in recent games, the jury remains out on where Rooney should line up not only this summer for England but in the future for United.
PALACE FAIL TO SEIZE THE MOMENT
It felt like Crystal Palace never truly believed they could win the FA Cup. They matched United for most of the game but it always felt like they gave their opponents too much respect.
Referee Mark Clattenburg didn’t cover himself in glory during the final and help Palace either. Twice in the first half he pulled Palace back when he should’ve played advantage. First Connor Wickham got clear from Chris Smalling but instead of letting the Palace forward play on he pulled it back for a foul by Smalling. Wickham tucked the ball home but the whistle had gone and United’s defenders had stopped.
Clattenburg again reacted too quickly instead of letting the play unravel when Joel Ward raced clear down the right flank and Clattenburg decided to show Marcos Rojo a yellow card and pull play back for a free kick on the halfway line when Ward was running clean through on goal. Who knows if that, or a failure to hand Rooney a second yellow, would have made a big difference but Palace fans will argue that it surely would have.
Despite their misfortune, the Eagles stuck to their gameplan superbly, soaking up pressure and surrendering possession to United in central areas. They knew they would get chances on the break to score and that’s exactly what happened.
Puncheon took the corner and it was half cleared, then knocked back to him. The local lad from Croydon then lashed the ball home at the near post past De Gea and Puncheon wheeled off to celebrate in front of the delirious Palace fans. It seemed as if the script had been written for Puncheon to grab the winner and Pardew danced with delight on the sidelines with moves that will haunt him. Then Mata equalized to put a spanner in the works and Palace never fully recovered. Their fans kept pushing them on but they couldn’t break a resilient United down.
It was a game where it seemed as though Palace never truly believed they could win it. They stuck to their gameplan and took the lead and with a man advantage at 1-1 they had chances to win it. Dwight Gayle got free at the start of the second extra time period but De Gea saved his tame effort as he couldn’t sort his feet out. It was a case of being good but not quite good enough for Palace. They didn’t rise to the occasion against a far from vintage United side.