Manchester United were the first side to be dumped out of the FA Cup fourth round after their penalty shootout defeat to Middlesbrough on Friday night. They would have been hoping for a bigger shock on Saturday to take the headlines away from them.
It nearly happened as Plymouth missed an agonizing late penalty to send their tie with Chelsea to a penalty shootout, while West Ham twice teased Kidderminster Harriers with an almighty upset before two dramatic late strikes saved them any blushes.
Unlike at Old Trafford, there was late drama in favor of the Premier League sides. Unlike at United, big players took their chances in big moments to deal decisive blows.
There was perhaps no greater impact than that of United target Declan Rice, who came off the bench for West Ham at Aggborough to control proceedings and provide West Ham with a foothold in the tie.
It was the England international who danced through the Kiddy defense deep into added time and remained cool under pressure before smashing a ferocious shot into the non-league net.
Rice, 23, won’t get much credit for that goal given the opposition, but no matter who you are playing, it is still a clutch moment at a time of need for his team.
Such pressure is something the boyhood Chelsea fan has long been used to. At such a young age, he is already vice-captain for West Ham, often leading the side on the pitch when veteran midfielder Mark Noble isn’t in the starting line-up and he played in every match for England last summer during the European Championship.
United are prioritizing a new central midfielder at the end of the season and it is clear to see why Rice is so high up on their list of targets.
There are a couple of issues, though. Most notably priced.
David Moyes valued Rice at a staggering £100million last year and believes it will take an ever larger figure to prize him away from the London Stadium this summer.
“I said in the summer I thought Declan Rice was £100m,” said Moyes. “That was the sales. That was cheap. That was your chance to get Declan Rice cheap.
“I can’t do anything about what people write about Declan Rice. I can’t stop that, except say that you will need humongous money to get close.”
United’s current club-record transfer remains the £89m they spent on signing Paul Pogba six years ago. In the summer he could leave for free; it would take another bumper deal to find someone who could take his place from him.
However, there is still a reason to pursue it.
It is an old adage that if you buy well once, you won’t have to buy again for a long time, and a possible £100m-plus deal for Rice could give United a decade of quality in the heart of their side.
West Ham remain in a strong position, though. Rice appears happy at the club and is contracted until 2024, with the option of an additional year, meaning Moyes’ side have no immediate need to sell a star whose stock could rise even further at the World Cup at the end of the calendar year.
But then there’s the Chelsea factor.
A summer move to Old Trafford is made even harder by Rice’s allegiance to the London club. Not only has he supported them since being a child, but his football idol is John Terry and one of his closest friends is Mason Mount, the poster boy for the Stamford Bridge side.
Thomas Tuchel’s side are themselves looking to revolutionize their side with a midfield overhaul and are looking for long-term replacements for N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, who are both 30.
Chelsea also have a track-record of splashing enormous fees on signing whoever they want, spending £97.5m on Romelu Lukaku last year and £71m on both Kai Havertz and Kepa Arrizabalga in previous years.
It’s hard to imagine a situation where no other side is prepared to match United in the pursuit of Rice, or how they would convince him to move to Old Trafford if his boyhood club are serious about a deal this summer. But it is a challenge they need to at least explore.
On a weekend when United’s leadership credentials have been questioned once again, they have been reminded of the potential solution plying his trade for a Premier League top four rival.
They will need to smash their club-record if they are to have any hope of getting him.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.