United have been drawn against Aston Villa in the FA Cup third round, and the natural reaction is to give out a groan. It’d be nice to have an easy stroll in the Cup, rest a few of our better players, and take it easy. With us facing a tougher task than we might have anticipated in overthrowing Arsenal, we could do with having our first XI well rested for the Premiership, rather than slogging it out in the FA Cup against another Premiership side. However, whilst we might have preferred a team from the lower divisions, recent history will tell us Aston Villa is just the kind of team we want to play against.
Last season, United made it all the way to the final after being drawn against a Premiership team in every round. We were drawn against Villa in the third round last year, and Solskjaer saved us from a replay at Villa Park in the final minute when his shot scraped under the keeper’s body. Rooney came on as substitute to score two goals against Portsmouth in the 4th Round, one of them an absolute beauty. We then faced Reading, Middlesbrough and Watford, before meeting Chelsea in the final.
The season before we were drawn against conference side Burton Albion and came away from their place with a fair 0-0 draw. The team that started was made up of Reserve and fringe team players, and with half an hour to go, Rooney and Ronaldo were introduced, but could do nothing to stop the replay at Old Trafford. We went on to win that match 5-0, but it was something we could have done without, sandwiched midweek between our games against City and Liverpool.
The season before this, in the days of Bellion and Djemba Djemba, it was non-league Exeter who held United to a 0-0 draw, this time at Old Trafford. Ronaldo and Scholes were subbed on with half an hour to play, but could do little to save us from the embarrassment of a replay at Exeter. Rooney and Ronaldo scored our goals in a game which was still too hard for us than it should have been.
Going back another year, it was Villa in the 3rd round draw again, at Villa Park, which we won 2-1 courtesy of two Paul Scholes’ goals. Arsenal, Fulham and City were the three other Premiership sies we were drawn against that year, with Northampton being the only team not in the Premiership which we faced until the final. We saw off Millwall 3-0, it was the Ronaldo show, with him and Ruud scoring our goals.
We played Villa in the 3rd round two seasons before that, back in 2002, and were on the brink of exit, after conceding two goals at the start of the second half. Solskjaer started the fight back, scoring in the 77th minute, only for Ruud, who had come on off the bench, to score two goals, three goals in five minutes for United, and we broke the hearts of Villa fans, winning 3-2.
With the FA Cup a valuable third of our Treble in 1999, we played Premiership sides in all but one of the rounds, facing Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Middlesbrough, before beating Newcastle in the final.
So then, in the past five years of the FA Cup, we have played Aston Villa three times in the third round, beating them on all occasions, and in two of those seasons, going on to the FA Cup final. Of course, it being Villa is more a coincidence than it is proof that we are going to win the Cup this season, but the point being made is that United need the pressure of facing top sides to go through. However well Ferguson might try to mentally prepare the team, there are always going to be players running out on the pitch thinking, “this is no big deal, we’re only playing….*insert team name here*”. Whereas if we have a Premiership side to play, then they will be more focussed, and won’t have the weight of expectation of a thrashing to deliver.
The Villa game will fall between our away trip to Spurs and our home match against City. It will be a tough game, particularly in front of their fans, who will be seeking some sort of reaction to the 4-1 thrashing we dealt them just a few months before. But it is the kind of tough game United need to kick start their FA Cup campaign. Just ask the Villa fans! They will have been groaning a lot louder than you when they saw who they had to play in the third round!