Manchester United’s latest game-changer makes a difference in win before Fulham’s three red cards
Manchester United were involved in the Five Minutes Final in 1979 and this was the Five Minutes Quarterfinals. Fulham clutched defeat in the clutches of victory over a crazy and chaotic five minutes in scenes more befitting a WWE event.
In those five minutes there were three red cards, two goals and a penalty. Both goals came at the Stretford End, which saw another remarkable United recovery.
“We’re marching with Ten Hag’s army, we’re all going to Wembley,” they sang in full-time chorus. After almost five years without a trip to the National Stadium, United supporters will be left behind in the semi-finals on April 23.
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Until Willian’s improvised goalkeeper, United were lifeless and doomed to exit the FA Cup in the quarter-finals for the fifth time in nine seasons. Fulham coach Marco Silva, who was expelled in front of all his players, slipped through the tunnel in the 82nd minute, his team trailing 2-1. They were 1-0 up ten minutes earlier.
The dust had already settled by then. Had Silva seen a replay of Willian’s handball he would not have thrown a water bottle onto the pitch and started a tirade which the fourth official, David Coote, deemed worthy of expulsion.
Had Aleksandar Mitrovic, a thorn in United’s side and Fulham goalscorer all afternoon, been informed that Willian had obviously batted the ball from Jadon Sancho’s shot, he might not have aggressively confronted referee Chris Kavanagh. Mitrovic saw red, figuratively and literally.
After failing to consider a possible penalty last week, the video assistant referee ruled in United’s favor this week. Those who sat in the press box, gazing at the monitors, knew immediately that United would soon be a man. Shortly thereafter, they were leading 2-1.
“We’ve seen everything, we’ve won a lot,” boasted United viewers as Kavanagh studied the replay. For the first time in the afternoon they felt victory.
After the referee counted nine Fulham players on the pitch and Bruno Fernandes nervously converted his penalty, United’s progress seemed inevitable. Somehow the match ended flatteringly 3-1.
The winner was scored in style by Marcel Sabitzer, his first goal for the club two minutes after Fernandes collected the Stretford Enders and five after the red card appeared more times than it takes a kettle to boil. Fernandes started and finished United’s goal.
United needed special support. They were lifeless until Antony broke in the 72nd minute to knock off Sancho and pull Willian’s illegal save. Fulham, with no midweek commitments and a balanced side, dominated for 70 minutes and were well worth their advantage.
Ten Hag have made 19 half changes this season and responded to better first halves but resisted against Fulham. Within five minutes of the restart, David de Gea’s goal was peppered with three shots. Mitrovic ended up injuring him and losing the ball while watching Luke Shaw.
Shortly after Mitrovic fell, Harry Maguire emerged from the backline with Aaron Wan-Bissaka still standing behind him, much to the audible disbelief of United supporters. Many sounded resigned after 14 games in 47 days with a tired defeat.
But no sooner had United equalized than their fans began chanting for them to go to Wem-ber-ley. They meet Brighton, the only home team to prevail at Old Trafford all season. United’s unbeaten run in M16 is now 23 games.
This wasn’t an afternoon as rosy as United’s shirts. Fernandes bemoaned Shaw’s refusal to hit a long diagonal and there was audible anger at United’s lethargy to improve the pitch. In the 40th minute, Wan-Bissaka threw the ball to Maguire but his back turned and the restart was delayed. “Put your damn head up,” advised one supporter.
Maguire typically became a lightning rod for fans to express their desperation, particularly on the two occasions he stood motionless with the ball amid a lack of options. His happiest moment before Fernandes equalized was being joined onto the pitch by his daughter and nephew.
The lack of a teammate guarding the ball was noticed when the team sheets were printed. Of Ten Hag’s five permanent signings, only one has started. Of the nine recruited under his supervision, three lined up.
There was a Ole Gunnar Solskjaer reunion with Andreas Pereira in the Fulham XI, against Scott McTominay. Daniel James came off the bench.
Not only the players were well below their optimum. Ten Hag’s game management was hesitant, but choosing Antony as the main game-changer was crucial. The much missed Fred was not needed until United were up front.
United only crossed in the eighth minute into the Fulham third and Ten Hag kept pointing to the left, only his instructions fell on deaf ears. As Marcus Rashford stormed down that side, he looked up and only had Weghorst to match. Rashford was obviously hesitant but eventually passed the ball to Weghorst, whose shot had all the power of a back pass.
Ten Hag has misjudged the midfield duel for the second straight week, recalling McTominay to Sabitzer’s partner against the accomplished duo of Harrison Reed and Joao Palhinha. Ten Hag obviously saw McTominay as a seated midfielder and a more balanced option, but Fred had to be an automatic choice in the absence of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen.
The axis of McTominay and Sabitzer as starters lasted just 45 minutes against West Ham in the previous round, although Sabitzer and Fred’s three starts together in February affected United’s balance.
They won at least two and drew one, and a close relationship developed between them. Without Fred, the announced Palhinha was free to carry the ball unhindered and Reed charged further forward to set Mitrovic up against Martinez. Palhinha was announced as man of the match.
Ten Hag has repeatedly cited Weghorst’s pressure on his uninterrupted streak of 18 starts, only this time there was no evidence. Weghorst retreated into the hole to accommodate Antony and United could soon bury the Weghorst experiment.
Fulham’s FA Cup hopes were buried in five minutes.