Referee Chris Kavanagh (left) orders Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic (second left) and Willian (second right) off the pitch after showing them red cards during the Emirates FA Cup quarter-final match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Sunday March 19, 2023.

Man Utd breaking Fulham’s brains is just the latest evidence they’re back

“It’s better to be lucky than good sometimes,” was Roy Keane’s verdict on Manchester United’s 3-1 comeback victory against Fulham in the FA Cup quarter-finals.

Having clocked up over almost 500 appearances and captained the club during the most successful period in the club’s history, it’s safe to say Keane knows a thing or two about how to win.

The 51-year-old, speaking as a pundit on ITV, stressed that United will need to perform better if they’re to make it past Brighton in the semi-final at Wembley in April.

But he also recognised the importance, in a knockout game, of Just Getting It Done. He’ll be the first to admit that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side weren’t always brilliant. But when they weren’t, they invariably did enough to win matches.

Having ended their six-year wait for silverware with a routine 2-0 victory over Newcastle in the League Cup final at Wembley that looked straight out of the Keane and Ferguson glory days, Erik ten Hag’s side look unrecognisable to the side that finished with a record low Premier League points tally last term.

That was a major step forward for the club, but the following weekend’s historic 7-0 defeat to an ailing Liverpool was a reality check that this project remains a work in progress. Casemiro’s subsequent red card and two dropped points against Southampton were a reminder there’s still work to do to finish in the top four.

The blip looked in danger of turning into a wobble as this season’s surprise package Fulham deservedly led 1-0 on the hour mark in the quarter-final at Old Trafford. In the absence of Casemiro, it was the visitors’ Portuguese-speaking midfield powerhouse Joao Palhinha that dominated in the centre of the park.

“We were clearly the best team on the pitch,” stressed Marco Silva in his post-match interview. That might sound like sour grapes after being denied a famous cup victory, but he had a point. Fulham were good value for their lead and didn’t look too troubled as United went in search of an equaliser.

That was until United sprang into action with a dangerous break. Willian scrambled back to stick his body in the way of Jadon Sancho’s goalbound shot.

It looked as though the veteran Brazilian winger had pulled off an inspired defensive block, but replays soon revealed that United’s appeals for handball weren’t spurious. It became clear that VAR would intervene to give United a penalty and reduce Fulham to 10 men.

Or nine, so incensed was Aleksandar Mitrovic that he accosted referee Chris Kavanagh and subsequently received the red card that was just shown to Willian. Surprisingly, this was the imposing Serbian striker’s first straight red card at Fulham and first since 2016. He’s mellowed in recent years but the old red mist descended here.

Nine men without a coach, because Marco Silva also lost his head on the touchline and talked himself into a dismissal.

Their frustration was understandable. They’d done everything right for over an hour. The perfectly-executed gameplan, in which Mitrovic did his job by slamming home the opener. And then in one fell swoop, everything had been undone.

Meanwhile, the hosts kept their head in the game, professionally stuck to their task and needed just two minutes to score another past the nine-men visitors. From there, their progression to the semis felt like an inevitability.

Bruno Fernandes’ second goal, deep into injury time, added the gloss. It’s been four home ties in the FA Cup this season and four 3-1 wins. They also came from behind in the last round, and in the round before that made Andy Carroll lose his cool.

“We showed great character. Every time this team comes out, they show the personality and the determination needed,” Ten Hag told the BBC.

“Fulham are a good team and you have to be good to overcome them.”

The win was United’s 32nd of the season. No side in Europe has more. They remain on track to play every possible game this season and could yet end 2022-23 with three pieces of silverware. Ten Hag’s side also look well-placed to achieve their primary objective of getting back into the Champions League.

That all sounds like the Manchester United we’ve come to know in the Premier League era.

But the real evidence that they’re back is having the nous to get a win when they’re not at the best, all the while breaking the brains of their opponents. Straight out of the Fergie era.

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