There may be 93 league places between the two teams, but there was no gulf in the scoreline, with a much-changed United side having to work hard to book a place in the FA Cup quarter finals as Wes Brown’s first-half header ensured a narrow victory.
It would be unfair to patronise Crawley Town and describe them as plucky, but they came to Old Trafford with a positive attitude, tried to play football and, most of all, made a testing, trying game of it for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. For which they should be commended. Their fans may not make the long journey home to the south coast on a wave of euphoria, but they return with plenty of pride at their team’s performance.
For United, this tie was sandwiched between a vital Manchester derby league match and the resumption of the Champions League knockout stages with a first-leg tie away to Marseille on Wednesday. This was about doing a job to get through to the next round, whilst offering playing time to those in most need of it. In that sense, it was a job well done. There was a scoring, solid display from captain Brown, while Darron Gibson and John O’Shea can take positives from their performances.
United made nine changes to the team that beat City in such dramatic circumstances at Old Trafford seven days previously. Match-winner Wayne Rooney was included on the bench as an insurance policy, but when selecting his substitutes Sir Alex might have hoped to be in a position to use three teenagers: 19-year-old striker Joshua King, and midfielders Ryan Tunnicliffe (18) and Paul Pogba (17). Although he was not afforded that luxury, the experience of the day will have served them well.
As expected, it was a high-tempo, positive start from the Sussex club, backed by 9,000 giddy fans. They were clearly confident, and on this stage, having beaten three league sides – Swindon, Derby and Torquay – en route to Old Trafford, why shouldn’t they be? United have all the experience and know-how to beat a team 93 league places below them, but the FA Cup can be neglectful of hierarchy.
The first opening for United came after good work from Gabriel Obertan, briefly having switched to the right flank, and the Frenchman flashed a low ball across the six-yard box. Unfortunately nobody gambled on reaching it. Then after 11 minutes, Crawley midfielder Ben Smith had the visitors’ first opportunity with a speculative shot on the bounce which although going wide had had Anders Lindegaard, on his second start for United, momentarily worried.
The Reds gradually began to take a grip of the game and it was United’s no.28 Darron Gibson’s vision who created the goal on 28 minutes. First, his glorious 40-yard through-ball played Javier Hernandez in, but the Mexican was tackled before he could get his shot off. From the resulting corner, Gibson’s second attempt at a cross was met with a glancing header from Wes Brown that nestled inside the far post. It’s his first United goal since October 2008, and only his fourth goal for the Reds.
It could have been 2-0 five minutes later when Carrick’s scything pass set Fabio bearing down on goal, but the Brazilian left-back’s shot with the outside of his right boot went wide, and shortly after that Obertan had a drilled effort cutting in from the left that Michael Kuipers palmed away.
United started the second half by introducing Rooney in place of Anderson, and before the hour mark Chris Smalling came on in place of Rafael, with John O’Shea shifting to right-back and with 20 minutes remaining Darren Fletcher was called upon when Fabio suffered an injury. It meant none of the hopeful teenagers would get on but the game was still too tight for that. United had been limited to two timid efforts, one from Rooney which went over the bar and another curling effort from Fabio which Kuipers comfortably saved.
Despite United having an increased number of experienced players on the pitch, the performance had become possibly more fractured. And when David Hunt volleyed wide from 12 yards for the visitors with little more than quarter of an hour of the game remaining, the visiting supporters seemed more intent on getting something from then game. And when Matt Tubbs sent an overhead kick narrowly over the bar, there was a palpable sense of purpose about Crawley and their travelling fans.
United were being made to work for the victory, as well they should. That the Reds spent the closing stages seeing this game out rather than rampantly seeking to add to the scoreline tells all about the match as a contest. In fact, Crawley came closest to the game's second goal when substitute Richard Brodie hit the bar with a looping header in stoppage time. Most importantly for United, a place in the last eight of the competition beckons.