Strikers hold key to Cup success
Under-fire Martinez and van Gaal count on strikers to save their jobs
EVERTON v MAN UNITED
(Tomorrow, 12.10am, Singtel TV Ch 109)
Not so long ago, Louis van Gaal and Roberto Martinez both had the world at their feet.
One was the toast of Ajax and Bayern Munich, not to mention with his native Holland, while the only reservations over Martinez appeared to lie in which club would make the first move for his services - Barcelona or Arsenal.
But it is now unemployment, rather than further vaunting, which beckons for the current managers of Manchester United and Everton.
As both clubs seek to revisit happier times in the FA Cup semi-final tomorrow morning (Singapore time), van Gaal and Martinez face a desperate battle to save their futures.
Van Gaal's two-year spell at Old Trafford has been dominated by both friction and frustration.
His ruthless "my way or the highway" approach has won him little friends and fans in the stands nor points on the board in the English Premier League.
Marcus Rashford has been the solitary saving grace that has prevented United executive Ed Woodward considering the appointment of Jose Mourinho, whose overtures remain a constant theme in United's season, to be the lesser of two evils.
Still only 18, the Wythenshawe-born marksman has filled the void in the absence of both Anthony Martial and a misfiring Wayne Rooney to miraculously dig van Gaal out of countless mires in the EPL, FA Cup and Europa League in the second half of this term.
Premature clamours for his inclusion in Roy Hodgson's England squad for Euro 2016 remain as vociferous as the decrying behind his omission from the PFA's Young Player of the Year shortlist. That hype shows no signs of dissipating anytime soon.
Rashford has struck seven times in 13 appearances for United, including setting them on their way to Wembley with the opening goal in their replay with West Ham.
Comparisons with Patrick Kluivert, a pillar of Ajax's "Golden Generation" under van Gaal, have done little to dampen the current hype - not least when they came, somewhat self-indulgently, from the United manager himself.
Ego massaging has been a driving factor in the fortunes of Rashford's opposite number and potential superior next season, Romelu Lukaku.
United, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus have all been name-checked, with more likely to follow as agent Mino Raiola continues to talk up the Belgium international ahead of an inevitable summer bidding war to a stage grander than the one Everton can currently offer.
Martinez's hopes of weathering the current tide of unrest against him at Goodison Park lie with Lukaku, whose latest return to London comes no longer as yet another Chelsea outcast but instead as one of the most coveted strikers in European football.
In the space of two seasons, Martinez has been transformed from a messiah in the blue half of Merseyside to a pariah.
The midweek 4-0 thrashing by Liverpool has intensified the current tide of unrest railing against the Toffees' beleaguered manager.
Lukaku has been his rare shimmer of positivity in an otherwise disastrous campaign.
A quarter-final brace against Chelsea booked Everton's place at Wembley and took his tally to a prolific 25 goals in 41 appearances.
True to adage, however, form has only been temporary.
The 21-year-old has been on a five-game barren streak since putting his former club to the sword last month.
Time will tell whether the sense of occasion will again bring out the best in Lukaku's ability.
There is no guarantee that whichever of van Gaal and Martinez emerges victorious from this showdown will even be spared on the back of increasingly forgettable campaigns.
Only their respective leading strikers currently hold the key to any potential redemption.
BY THE NUMBERS
This is the third FA Cup semi-final between the two sides. Everton won 1-0 in 1966 and triumphed on penalties in 2009 after a 0-0 draw.
United have won just four of their last 14 visits to Wembley (excluding matches won on penalties). They have not won an FA Cup game there since beating Newcastle in the 1999 final.
Everton have qualified for the semi-finals 26 times, reaching the final on 13 occasions. Man United are in their 28th semi-finals (equal with Arsenal), and they will be hoping to play in their 19th final.
It's quality, not age, that matters
Louis van Gaal has likened Marcus Rashford's emergence to that of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Patrick Kluivert and Thomas Mueller - all of whom were given a chance to shine thanks to the Manchester United manager's "guts".
In less than two months, the 18-year-old Rashford has gone from young hopeful to Old Trafford favourite thanks to the exceptional way he has taken to life in the United first-team.
Rashford has netted seven goals in just 13 appearances and is the stand-out player among the youngsters given a chance this term.
Van Gaal was quick to highlight that youth has long been his focus and compared the United teenager to a number of famous names he has given a chance over the years.
"When I go to Ajax and then Patrick Kluivert, 18 years old, made the same performances as Marcus Rashford," he said.
"I can give a lot of examples of that, it is not new. In Bayern Munich, it was Mueller. In Barcelona, Xavi was 18 years old and Iniesta 17 years old.
"It is not strange, I think. Age is not the big issue. It is quality - it is the big issue."
A string of injuries led the likes of Rashford to get an early first-team look in, along with the likes Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Guillermo Varela.
The latter duo played for Warren Joyce's side as they won the Under-21 Premier League on Monday, while Paul McGuinness, who left his post with the Under-18s in February, has also played a key role in United's young players' development.
Put to van Gaal that such individuals deserve credit for having players like Rashford ready for the first team, he was quick to point out they are not the finished article.
"They are not ready," he said. "Also Marcus Rashford is not ready and he knows that, he can learn a lot.
"You need always guts to put youngsters in the squad and also in the line-up, but of course the academy and all the coaches of the academy, they have their credits for these players.
"Also the scouts who have discovered these boys, they have credit. And I'm a little part of it, but that part is very important because you need guts to do that."
That boldness has paid dividends with Rashford, who may well start in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
When asked about the match's importance given they are far from assured of a top-four finish in the EPL, van Gaal said: "It is not for me to judge that.
"I do my utmost best and I have said that. We are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, we are still in the race for the fourth position in the Premier League and that was our aim."
Meanwhile, Roberto Martinez insists he has faced more difficult times as a manager as he prepares for the semi-final labelled as "make-or-break" for his tenure at Everton.
The growing anger among fans at the club's form reached a peak on Wednesday as Everton were trounced 4-0 by Liverpool.
There is speculation defeat could bring the axe down on Martinez after nearly three years at Goodison Park.
The Spaniard's career took an upward trajectory through spells at Swansea and Wigan, with the Latics' relegation more than balanced out by a spectacular FA Cup triumph in 2013.
Said Martinez: "My position is to use the time as well as we can to prepare the team, to get everyone ready for the next game.
"The experience that I had in the last 10 years, I've been very fortunate to be in high-pressure situations and I know what my role is and what I have to do in order to help the team."
- PA Sport.