It turned out to be ‘gladioli’ rather than ‘death’ for Louis van Gaal and his Manchester United team as they clinched an unconvincing FA Cup third-round victory over Yeovil Town.
In the build-up to the game United’s manager had unfurled one his favourite metaphors to analogise the contrasting emotions of these knockout ties, with the gladiolus flowers of victory representing the place in today’s fourth round draw that United earned here.
An expected triumph against a team ranked 65 places below them in the league ladder was achieved in the footballing backwaters of Somerset, a place remote enough for Alex Ferguson to arrive by helicopter and land within 200 metres of the pitch shortly before kick-off.
United struggled to dominate the game at any stage but their superior class told as Ander Herrera scored with a superb 64th-minute effort before substitute Angel di Maria’s composed finish in the dying moments calmed any nerves.
They have not won this competition since 2004 but this win maintains United’s hopes of a 12th success and realistically their only chance of silverware this season, with Chelsea and Manchester City sitting 9 points ahead of them in the Premier League.
Van Gaal had endured a chastening defeat in the Capital One Cup to another third-tier side when MK Dons beat United 4-0 in his only other cup encounter since joining, and this victory will have helped sooth those wounds.
The Dutchman was familiar with the ‘Death or Gladioli’ nature of his trip to Yeovil’s Huish Park after other previous cup defeats to lower league opposition at Ajax and Barcelona, but further embarrassment was avoided.
“I’m very happy we survived this festive period because I don’t have a big squad because of all the injuries,” Van Gaal said afterwards.
“I could not have changed much and in spite of that we have regained ground on Chelsea by one point and we are in the fourth round of the FA Cup. What more could a manager wish for?”
The home fans were treated to Wayne Rooney and Falcao being named in the United starting line-up while Darren Fletcher, the only man with a winners’ medal, also started in a side that had six changes from the 1-1 draw at Stoke.
Victory over a club from a town with a population that would fill just over half of United’s Old Trafford stadium was anticipated but far from routine. Yeovil’s fans found their voice over an hour before the players entered the pitch and it spurred them on to an energetic first-half performance which denied United a single decent chance to score.
Van Gaal was forced to switch his defence to a back-four at the break after Rafael suffered a possible fractured cheekbone, despite playing on, while Luke Shaw injured his ankle, so Juan Mata and Jonny Evans came on. On Rafael, who left the ground early to have his injury assessed, Van Gaal said: “He played on because the last few weeks he didn’t play and he has a fantastic mentality, it’s unbelievable.”
Ten minutes after the break Yeovil had the chance that they would have prayed might come their way, only for the exotically-named Kieffer Roberto Francisco Moore – hailing from Torquay and a £30,000 signing from Dorchester Town – to prod straight at David De Gea from ten yards out after controlling a cross from the right.
Van Gaal then brought on Di Maria for Falcao after an hour and four minutes later he had the goal he desired.
A pass from Fletcher deflected into Herrera’s path and the Spaniard turned and unleashed a brilliant effort that dipped into the top corner from just outside the area.
Yeovil then pressed for an equaliser but lacked the quality required to get it, before Di Maria sprinted after a through ball from Rooney and calmly lofting his finish over Yeovil goalkeeper Jed Steer.
Gary Johnson, the Yeovil manager, had warned his team before the match about getting carried away with wondering whether they might get Rooney’s boots or a picture with him afterwards, but he was proud of their performance on the day. “I wanted to make sure we gave them a fright and we did that,” Johnson said. ”We had the chance before they scored. When the boys get home they’ll realise what they’ve done here. I don’t think there was £159million between the sides.”
YEOVIL TOWN (4-4-1-1): Steer 7; Twumasi 7, Arthurworry 7, Nugent 6, Smith 6; Dawson 7 (Berrett 88), Edwards 7, Foley 6 (Hayter 88), Ralph 6 (Eaves 69; 5); Gillett 8; Moore 6.
MANCHESTER UNITED (3-5-2): De Gea 7; McNair 5, Smalling 5, Blackett 6; Rafael 6 (Mata 46; 7), Herrera 7, Rooney 6, Fletcher 6, Shaw 5 (Evans 46); Wilson 6, Falcao 5 (di Maria 60; 7).
Referee: Craig Pawson.