Looks Like Fulham Really Didn’t Want To Go To Wembley.

For 70-plus minutes, Manchester United got outplayed at home by Fulham and it looked like their FA Cup dreams were about to go up in smoke.

Nothing was going right — Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Wout Weghorst were anonymous; Bruno Fernandes had another one of those games where he gesticulated and screamed at his teammates so much that there would inevitably be more articles written about whether he was captaincy material; and Casemiro’s and Christian Eriksen’s absences meant United had to try and dictate play through their center-halves, which would be fine except Harry Maguire’s passing was so slow and predictable that he drew audible groans from the fans. Fulham went up 1-0 after Aleksandar Mitrović scored off a corner kick and could have had two more if not for David de Gea doing his thing.

But then Fulham, evidently, got tired of all of the winning and decided to implode worse than Greg Norman at the Masters. Maybe they’re busy during the weekend of the FA Cup Semifinals and didn’t want to have to reschedule their plans?

In the span of 90 seconds, Fulham got three red cards and, essentially, gift-wrapped United their tickets to Wembley. It started when Antony and Sancho staged an impressive counterattack that would have ended with a Sancho goal, except Willian used his hand to stop the ball from going in. The referee, who originally missed the handball and gave a corner to United, reviewed the footage and had little choice but to award the penalty and send Willian off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity.

Had that been the end of it, Fulham would have still been behind the 8-ball, but could have held out for another 20 minutes plus stoppage time plus 30 minutes of extra time to get to a shootout, where they would have a decided advantage over de Gea. After all, United played down a man for over an hour last weekend and took a point, so there was a clear precedent for Fulham.

But instead, Mitrović, Fulham’s best goalscorer and a guy who you’d want to try and poach a goal for you against the run of play, decided to try the novel approach of shoving and intimidating the referee into reversing his decision. Somehow, it didn’t work, and he joined Willian at the exit. Worse, Marco Silva, Fulham’s manager, also got sent off, having entered the technical area during the VAR check to yell at the ref — another no-no.

United took full advantage and ruthlessly put Fulham under the sword. Fernandes converted the ensuing penalty, and two minutes later, Marcel Sabitzer produced a nifty back-heel for the go-ahead score. Fernandes then put the game beyond doubt in stoppage time with his 60th goal for United in all competitions, moving him past Javier Hernandez on the team’s all-time scoring list.

“You see the progress in the team. This team has a strong character, strong belief, a strong determination to win games,” Erik ten Hag said after the match. “Today was an example of it. When you have a difficult period in a game, stay in the game, fight back and turn the game. We are definitely in the position we want to be. We battle for it, we deserve it, trophies will be won at the end of the season, we are in a position to win trophies. But we have to fight for it. We need a whole squad because we already played from Christmas on every third or fourth day and that will continue to the end of the season.”

The sign of a good team is that they can win even when they play poorly. United, however, are going to need to improve and rediscover some of the form they showed before the Liverpool match if they’re going to have any chance at adding the FA Cup to its silverware haul. Luckily, the semifinals are a month away, so Casemiro will be back (unless he gets another red card before now and then), and hopefully Eriksen too. Of course, the rest of the team could very well be exhausted by then, so it might not matter.

As for Fulham, Silva, predictably, blamed the refs for costing his team the match — but not because of all of the red cards. After all, there was nothing he could really do to dispute those ejections. Willian, Mitrović and he all broke clear rules in the game and any referee in the world would have sent them off. Instead, he referred to two penalty shouts Fulham had in the first half, both involving Mitrović. Both of them seemed soft and neither were deemed VAR-worthy, which evidently touched a nerve with Silva and possibly Mitrović, which could explain why they lost their cool.

“Until the penalty moment and the red cards, we were clearly the best team on the pitch. We were the best team on the pitch, clearly. For me it was a decision the VAR can take,” Silva said after the match. “What is difficult to understand is why the two moments in the box in the first half one of them is a clear penalty and nobody checks, nobody sees.”

Silva is right. Fulham were the better team for 70-plus minutes or so. Unfortunately, football matches are 90 minutes plus stoppage time, and United were better when it counted (thanks to a late Christmas present from their opponents). “We won it. Why not? We scored three, they scored one,” Sabitzer said after the match, evidently channeling Jose Mourinho. “We were concentrated and focused until the end and yeah, I think in the first half we missed some chances but 1-0 down, we came back and that’s the important thing.”

Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

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