April 21, 2018
Once again Manchester United have the chance to end an unconvincing season with a flash of the finest silver. Winners of this competition under Louis van Gaal in 2016, and of the Europa League and League Cup under Jose Mourinho last year, they secured a place in another final after condemning Tottenham and their manager, Mauricio Pochettino, to yet another campaign without a crowning achievement.
Manchester United’s Ander Herrera sinks Tottenham in semi-final
Given their history in this competition and others Tottenham came into the game with not so much a monkey on their back as an entire posse of primates. Their run of FA Cup semi-final failures has now been extended to eight, no significant trophies for a decade and just the two League Cups since they last snuck into the final and won this title, against Nottingham Forest in 1991. It represents a lengthy period if not quite in the wilderness then at least in a chilly hinterland.
But in a heated atmosphere it was Spurs who warmed up most swiftly, Harry Kane having their first shot within 30 seconds and Son Heung-min’s clever turn putting the United defence in real trouble for the first time in the second minute. From the start United struggled to cope with the pace and intensity of their game, and when they found a path back into the contest it was only after Tottenham had themselves pointed the way. Mousa Dembélé, one of several key players who ultimately disappointed for Spurs, gave the ball away deep inside his own half, Paul Pogba and Alexis Sánchez combined to impose brutal, beautiful punishment and from there the pattern of the game changed.
That was after Spurs, having dominated the early exchanges, had taken the lead with a goal of humiliating simplicity. Ashley Young committed himself to pressing the ball deep inside the Tottenham half and Davinson Sánchez hit it long into the space the United left-back should have been covering. It was space that Christian Eriksen had all to himself and with Pogba trailing behind him he had time to measure his cross, which Dele Alli turned in.
There could, in the minutes that followed, have been more. Son’s looping cross was just too long for Kane, and his low cross seemed destined to be converted by Alli until Phil Jones hooked it clear. Kane set up Eriksen for a shot that bounced across goal and wide and Son’s effort hit Antonio Valencia.
Michel Vorm, who has kept goal for Spurs throughout their cup run, had been woefully underemployed until Kieran Trippier, with the ball on the right flank, turned down the chance to clear and instead passed to Mousa Dembélé, who might have turned the ball into touch but tried to jink past Pogba and failed. From there the Frenchman spun and delivered a delicious centre that dipped on to Sánchez’s head for the equaliser.
That moment gave United the encouragement to match their rivals’ intensity and the remainder of the first half was considerably more even, ending with fine long-range shots from both sides. Pogba’s curler in the final minute was tipped past the post and Eric Dier’s drive in stoppage time deflected off Chris Smalling and thumped the base of David de Gea’s right-hand post.
Smalling also got himself in the way of Tottenham’s first notable shot of the second half, deflecting Kane’s effort wide. That this took place nearly 14 minutes after the interval reflects a period of diminished pace and precision. But now it was United who were more often winning second balls and coming first in marginal races, Spurs being pressured into errors. Ander Herrera epitomised their improved work ethic in scoring their second goal, sprinting the length of the field and arriving on the edge of Tottenham’s penalty area with perfect timing. Sánchez’s pass from the left flicked off Romelu Lukaku’s studs, was left by Jesse Lingard and the Spaniard’s low drive flashed past Vorm.
Having survived their poor start, United flourished to eventually give a display of authority. Pogba impressed again, claiming an assist and hitting a couple of delicious long passes to Lukaku. Sánchez displayed the effervescence that marked his finer performances for Arsenal. Spurs, increasingly frustrated, played at times as if their primary target was not United’s goal but Lingard’s ankles. With Kane peripheral for long periods there was only one significant chance as they chased the game, when Victor Wanyama headed Érik Lamela’s free-kick harmlessly high in the 89th minute.
Instead United, having taken a comical amount of time over a couple of substitutions, might have extended their advantage in the resulting stoppage time. First Lukaku released Marcus Rashford only for Dier to dispossess him inside the penalty area, and then Vorm raced out of his area to block a pass to Lukaku – with his back rather than, as many United fans suspected, his hands. But if this victory was never destined to be comfortable, it was in the end convincing.
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