West Ham and their creative force Payet embarrass Man United
Van Gaal's flops don't have a single player as good as West Ham star
MAN UNITED v WEST HAM
(Tonight, 11.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 109)
The most telling criticism of Manchester United is also the simplest.
When they host West Ham in the FA Cup quarter-final tonight, the best footballer will be wearing a Hammers jersey.
In the last three years, United's spending has tiptoed towards a scandalous £300 million ($582m), but no one on the books can currently match the artistry or the consistent industry of Dimitri Payet.
It's a withering assessment of a failing enterprise and one that neatly represents United's self-inflicted demise.
Whatever the fortunes of the respective clubs in previous decades, West Ham never boasted the best on show.
When the Hammers had Paolo di Canio, United had Paul Scholes. When Upton Park revered a young Carlos Tevez, Old Trafford enjoyed a little R & R with a rising Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in his prime.
Even when West Ham's famed academy coaches were nurturing youngsters called Cole, Carrick, Lampard and Ferdinand, United's Class of '92 were graduating with a Treble in 1999.
Check the squads. Pick a season. Go compare. The stars of defence, midfield and attack shone brightest in Manchester. East London was always eclipsed.
But the rise of Payet not only emphasises United's fall, but also underlines the circumstances behind the decline.
Payet is a product of patience, both on the part of the individual and the club.
His talent was never in doubt, but an early lack of progress ensured that the Frenchman's full potential is only being realised now in his 29th year.
A member of the acclaimed French 1987 generation, Payet struggled to catch his contemporaries Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa (an initial failing that still gnaws away at his chances of Euro 2016 selection.)
But the scrawny kid at Nantes improved steadily, rather than spectacularly; first at Lille and then at Marseille, where the wily Marcelo Bielsa spotted a latent talent.
In roughly the same period when United failed to recognise or harness the attributes of Angel Di Maria, Patrice Evra, Javier Hernandez, Shinji Kagawa and perhaps even Danny Welbeck, Bielsa pushed Payet to his peak.
The Argentine monitored Payet's progress, convinced that the laidback playmaker had been playing within himself for too long. He demanded more, every week, and dropped the midfielder when he fell short of his coach's lofty expectations.
In the end, Payet reciprocated with 17 assists.
At West Ham, Slaven Bilic has essentially continued where Bielsa left off, constantly reminding his maverick to smash through his self-imposed glass ceiling.
Payet roams as a left-sided No. 10, usually alongside Manuel Lanzini, with Mark Noble and either Pedro Obiang or Alex Song providing cover.
Instructions are consistent and responsibilities easily understood. The Frenchman enjoys freedom within clearly defined limits. His muscular low centre of gravity supports bullish runs that evoke warm memories of Paul Gascoigne in his pomp.
But he can also caress a pass like Cantona and, when the mood takes him, bend it like Beckham into the top corner.
Apart from his eight league goals, Payet has created an astonishing 81 chances - the fourth highest total in Europe's top five leagues and 35 more than Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
But to call Payet a secret weapon would be inaccurate. French coaches have known of his qualities since he was first called up to the Under-21 side.
Instead he's become a fully utilised weapon, thanks in large part to the direct intervention of Bielsa and Bilic.
If only United could say the same for one of their own.
Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have had their moments, but not one of Louis van Gaal's acquisitions has enjoyed a similar success story.
United's inept, unfocused performance against Liverpool betrayed a squad lacking direction and purpose.
Memphis Depay, Morgan Schneiderlin, Daley Blind, Ander Herrera and Bastian Schweinsteiger are seldom aware of their starting positions, playing formations or tactics from week to week.
If they are lucky, they'll have a faint idea of van Gaal's "system" of the day and might be handed a role that vaguely resembles the one they were signed to play.
Against Liverpool, Marouane Fellaini was assigned defensive midfield duties, which was rather like asking a killer whale to be a synchronised swimmer.
The Red Devils are a rabble of lost artists in search of a workable plan. The Hammers follow a master plan designed for their main man.
Bilic hails Payet as West Ham's finest footballer since Di Canio. Chairman David Sullivan compares the Frenchman with the peerless Trevor Brooking, which is a tad premature.
But a comparison that cannot be disputed is the Frenchman's current stature at the club. Payet stands alone. There's no one better at Upton Park.
Most embarrassingly for van Gaal, there's no one better at Old Trafford either.
He is a goalscorer, a very attractive player, doing things on the pitch that are lifting you out of your seat. It is what football is all about.
— West Ham manager Slaven Bilic on Dimitri Payet (above)
We are still in three competitions, so we need to fight. We still have the chance to win something and you have to believe in that.
— Man United manager Louis van Gaal
We are confident because we are playing good, we are training good. We are buzzing, we are training hard. That is the biggest secret. We have good players who are hungry, who are motivated.
— West Ham boss Slaven Bilic
Palace hope Cup form can boost league campaign
CRYSTAL PALACE 2
Alan Pardew has targeted an end to Crystal Palace's poor run in the Premier League after watching his team progress to the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley with a 2-0 win at Championship side Reading.
Their fourth Cup win from four has punctuated a worrying period in the league in which they last won at Stoke on Dec 19 and which has left them at risk of joining the battle against relegation.
Pardew's team were convincing winners at the Madejski Stadium, however, through Yohan Cabaye's 86th-minute penalty and Frazier Campbell's close-range strike in the fourth minute of second-half stoppage time.
In the belief his team now have some momentum, the manager said: "There's different pressure on us in the league, but maybe Leicester (on March 19) is a good game for us. No one expects us to beat them.
"I'm pleased for our fans who have suffered in our home games of late.
"It's great to see that end happily with a semi-final to come.
"We've won, but we've got to win in the league. A semi-final in the Cup brings an excitement to you, and we hope that rubs off on our league form."
That Palace were waiting until so late in the game to secure victory owed much to the performance of Reading goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, who made several impressive saves - notably from Yannick Bolasie and Mile Jedinak - and also got a hand to Cabaye's penalty.
"Ali played really well and made some fabulous saves," said Reading manager Brian McDermott.
"We went toe to toe with a very good Premier League side."
- PA Sport.