As I feared when I wrote the Manchester United preview many moons ago now, we came up against an irrepressible force in the FA Cup quarter final. The defeat wasn’t unexpected: it’s abject manner was a little disappointing but I needed less consoling than most as I’d left my hope at home that particular afternoon.
You couldn’t see United not breaching our defence so the bet that my mate had on Hangeland to score first and Fulham to sneak a famous 1-0 win looked very optimistic. We had to score first and probably early and, in all fairness, we could well have done. It was over a few pints in the Brick that I wondered what might have happened had Andy Johnson’s early shot trickled over the line instead of being cleared from underneath his own crossbar by Nemanja Vidic. I consoled myself with the thought that an angry United might have scored eight.
We could have scored more than once in the first 20 minutes too. Clint Dempsey forced Edwin van der Sar into a good save and Simon Davies, whose raking through ball had released Johnson for the earlier chance, drove over. You got the feeling that such early dominance needed to be cashed in, but we headed off to the ATM rather than the cashier.
United had already served notice of their attacking intent with the impressive Tevez drawing a fine save out of Schwarzer in the second minute and they took the lead with the softest of goals. How Tevez was afforded all the space and time in the world to flick United ahead with his head from a Carrick corner must have been the subject of an almighty inquest at Motspur Park. For a start, Pantsil lost his man and Paul Konchesky made the monumental error of leaving the goalline to try and challenge Tevez. He misjudged the flight of the ball and you always thought it was going to be an uphill battle from there.
Perversely, the second goal – the one referred to by all the pundits as a Tevez wonderstrike – frustrated me a lot more than the one that came before it. We seemed, inexplicably after such a good start, to be happy to let United have possession in front of us and not press the ball until the reached the final third. Such a generous spirit was begging to be punished and when both Etuhu and Murphy stood off Tevez you knew what was coming. It seemed to happen in slow motion but you don’t let a player of his ability shoot from distance. Even Hangeland’s late attempt to block the shot seemed half-hearted. It was a good strike but you can’t imagine any of the rest of the league’s top half virtually pointing the way to goal like that.
Any hope we might have had of getting back into the contest (or just restoring some pride on national televised) soon evaporated after the break. We were sloppy on the back, Wayne Rooney raced on the ball, took advantage of more backing off from our centre halves and curled a fine shot around Schwarzer and into the far corner from distance. His work was done – and United were home and hosed.
There was more misery before the evening was out. Zoltan Gera, often unfairly maligned but who has been pretty awful of late, made it a hat-trick of misplaced places in a matter of minutes (was I the only one who was told it was a bad idea to play blind square balls across your back line?) and Park Ji-Sing took full advantage, running in on and goal and finishing with aplomb. I think the Korean’s terribly underrated, he’s a fine player as well as a hard worker but the gulf in class was cruelly apparent by the final whistle.
There was some criticism of Hodgson after this game but I don’t think the manager got it terribly wrong. We played our way but United were just far too good. I don’t think we can blame Roy for that. Perhaps he could have used his substitutes to greater effect against Hull in the midweek fixture but he was always going to play his strongest eleven for the Cup game. My only complaint lies with some of the players, who seemed to lose the stomach for the fight once Tevez scored his second.
Our Cup run came to a crashing halt and, on this form, you’d be struggling to make a case against United not going on and winning all five of those trophies. The league game in a couple of weeks time looks an even more daunting prospect now – if that were possible.
FULHAM (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Konchesky, Hughes, Hangeland; Etuhu, Murphy (Dacourt 57), Davies, Dempsey; A. Johnson (Kamara 60), Zamora (Gera 67). Subs (not used): Zuberbuhler, Stoor, Kallio, Nevland.
BOOKED: Pantsil, Dacourt.
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-4-2): van der Sar; O’Shea (Eckersley 52), Evra, Ferdinand (Evans 45), Vidic; Carrick, Anderson, Park, Fletcher; Tevez, Rooney (Wellbeck 64). Subs (not used): Foster, Berbatov, Scholes, Giggs.
GOALS: Tevez (20, 35), Rooney (50), Park (81).
REFEREE: Mike Dean (Wirral).