A killer instinct
Before the walls started to cave in Manchester United were in control of this FA Cup fourth-round tie. They were as dominant early in the second half as they had been throughout the first and the only surprise was it was still only 1-0.
Cristiano Ronaldo has missed a penalty, put a presentable chance into the side-netting and fluffed a one-on-one. Bruno Fernandes had volleyed a good chance into the stands and Marcus Rashford had done the same with an even better opportunity in front of the Stretford End.
From nowhere Middlesbrough forced a chance, Dean Henderson saving from Matt Crooks, and from there they grew into the game. Once they equalized United wilted.
There was a spell before full-time when Fred looked like United’s most creative player but for the final 15 minutes of normal time and for all of extra-time this was a team devoid of ideas and inspiration, unable to trouble a Championship side despite playing at Old Trafford and having Ronaldo and Rashford on the pitch.
It was two of United’s many problems haunting them. A lack of ruthlessness in front of goal and then a total lack of confidence once the going gets tough. This is a squad full of winners but they rarely displayed that collective mentality this season.
Sancho finds his spark
United have always made it clear that they spent £73million on Jadon Sancho to be a key player for a decade, so to judge him on his first six months was unfair, but there are plenty who still expected more from the 21-year-old .
It’s not been an easy start to life at Old Trafford for Sancho, who has had to acclimatise to a new system, has seen the manager change and the club lurch into crisis, while he gets used to the attention that comes with being a United player .
There have been flashes in his first few months at the club. He looked to be a beneficiary of the managerial chance when he scored against Villarreal in November and looked a natural fit for Ralf Rangnick, only to surprisingly find himself dropped after two games. This was his first start from him since January 3.
It almost goes without saying that United need Sancho to kick up a gear in the final four months of the season. If he has been able to play a peripheral role so far, that luxury has now gone with Amad, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood all unavailable as options on the wing.
United will be hoping his injury isn’t serious, but it would have been encouraging Rangnick to see Sancho play with such confidence against Middlesbrough. That hasn’t come easily this season but his game started well, clipping a superb chip onto the crossbar in the first couple of minutes, and that seemed to give him belief.
From then on he was always willing to run at the Boro defence. He took Bruno Fernandes’ pass for the goal superbly and while it probably wo n’t go down as Sancho’s goal, it was his handiwork from him.
He was a constant threat in the second half. A perfectly weighted cross created an excellent chance for Rashford and a fine through ball set up Ronaldo. Neither chance was taken but the architect of those opportunities was an encouraging sign.
There have been so many changes to the handball rule in recent years that it can’t be easy for the officials to keep up, but as decisions go they surely don’t come much easier than Duncan Watmore handling in the lead-up to Matt Crooks’ goal.
The latest rule changes have reversed the idea of any handball offense in the lead-up to a goal automatically ruling it out, but it left the absurd situation that had Watmore’s effort gone in it would have disallowed, but because Crooks applied the finishing touch from a yard out it was allowed to stand.
The officials deemed Watmore’s accidental handball, which in itself was a very generous interpretation. His hand was in an unnatural position and moved towards the ball once he’d tried to control it.
It seemed like plenty in the away end held their celebrations back in the expectation it would be ruled out as well. Bafflingly, that wasn’t the case.
Fernandes’ attacking runs
Rangnick has been pleased with the improvement in United’s defending under his watch but before this game he touched on the need to better going in the other direction and goals haven’t always been easy to come by.
There was more fluency to United’s play against Middlesbrough and more ideas to try and break down a back three as well. The chances came but the finishes did not. Analysts had spotted an opportunity to get in behind that three-man defense and Fernandes clearly made countless runs from deep through the gap between Anfernee Djiksteel and Dael Fry.
The runs tended to come when Diogo Dalot or Luke Shaw had time to look up from their full-back positions. As soon as they lifted their heads Fernandes was on his bike. The first attempt at the ball caused enough confusion in the Boro defense to prevent Sancho with the difficult chance from which he hit the bar.
Fernandes himself had a golden chance midway through the half, again beating the offside trap to find space, only to flash a volley off target from Dalot’s cross.
Paying the penalty
When Ronaldo missed the 29th penalty of his career in the first half he probably didn’t expect the chance to make amends nearly two hours later.
United took the lead soon after Ronaldo’s miss but it still proved costly, as did Anthony Elanga putting the 16th and final penalty of the shootout into the Stretford End, but no blame can be pinned on the teenager.
Ronaldo has taken over penalty duties from Fernandes, who surprisingly stood over United’s first penalty since the return of Ronaldo earlier this season. When he blasted over the bar in injury-time against Aston Villa it was inevitable he would have to give way.
Ronaldo has since scored from the spot against Arsenal and Norwich, but his radar let him down last night. When his effort went past Joe Lumley half of Old Trafford cheered, just expecting the net to ripple. There was a moment of stunned silence when it cannoned into the advertising hoardings instead.
His drilled effort in the shootout was the 144th penalty he’s scored in his career and Fernandes was equally as cool, but United have now lost seven of their last eight penalty shootouts and there was an air of inevitably to it all.