Manchester United advanced to the FA Cup quarter-finals with a 2-0 win over Huddersfield Town, but what were the big talking points?
Romelu Lukaku scored once in each half for Jose Mourinho’s side, with Juan Mata seeing another effort controversially ruled out by VAR shortly before the break.
Here are five talking points from the action at the John Smith’s Stadium.
Neil Swarbrick was probably hoping for a quiet shift when he sat down in the west London office where Video Assistant Refereeing duties are carried out on Saturday evening, but instead it proved another controversial evening for the new technology.
There were 45 minutes on the clock at the John Smith’s Stadium when Mata collected Ashley Young’s low cross, rounded Jonas Lossl and slid the ball into Huddersfield’s empty net. United’s celebrations were long over by the time referee Kevin Friend finally signalled for VAR, and it was only after another lengthy delay that the goal was chalked off.
Replays eventually proved the decision was correct, but whether it was the kind of “clear and obvious mistake” for which VAR was intended is another question. Instead of settling debate, the use of VAR once again created more. The image of wobbly lines super-imposed on the pitch only added to the sense of confusion.
There have been times this season when the Manchester United shirt appears to have weighed heavily on Lukaku, but Saturday evening certainly wasn’t one of them. The Belgian was their match-winner, destroying Huddersfield with his pace and power and showing composure when it mattered.
Lukaku was instrumental in the build-up to both of his goals, linking with Michael Carrick and Mata for the first and Alexis Sanchez for the second. Having burst beyond Huddersfield’s high defensive line on each occasion, he then held off the defenders breathing down his neck and dispatched his finishes with unerring calmness.
In a game where Manchester United only had five shots to Huddersfield’s 19, it was exactly the kind of ruthlessness they needed. The Belgian’s first season at United has had its ups and downs, but a return of 21 goals from 38 appearances is encouraging. With United still fighting on three fronts, his return to form might have come at the right time.
United miss Pogba
Mourinho has had plenty to say about Paul Pogba lately, criticising his performances and rubbishing suggestions that his relationship with the midfielder has become strained, but he was reluctant to answer questions on the illness which ruled him out in the build-up to Saturday’s game.
Out on the pitch, however, his absence was obvious. Mourinho is right about Pogba’s recent dip in form, but while Nemanja Matic, Michael Carrick and Scott McTominay offered plenty of defensive protection, there was precious little creativity in his absence. In fact, Matic, Carrick and McTominay only fashioned a single scoring chance between them.
The sooner United can get Pogba back up to speed, the better.
Confidence booster for United
United needed this result and not just because it puts them into the last eight of the FA Cup. The mood around the club was low after last weekend’s 1-0 loss to Newcastle – their second defeat in three games after the reverse against Tottenham on transfer deadline day – but now they can approach a pivotal week with renewed confidence.
Mourinho’s side travel to Spain for the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie with Sevilla on Wednesday, then attention turns to their Super Sunday showdown with Chelsea in the Premier League. The much-needed victory at the John Smith’s Stadium ensures they can prepare for the challenges ahead in a more positive frame of mind.
Survival focus for Huddersfield
Huddersfield had reason to be optimistic ahead of this game having beaten Jose Mourinho’s side on their last visit to the John Smith’s Stadium and thumped Bournemouth 4-1 in their last outing, but in the end they have nothing to show for their efforts. Huddersfield had more possession and more chances, but they could not find a way through.
On the flip side, the defeat does at least allow them to focus their energy on the Premier League survival battle.
David Wagner’s side have exceeded expectations this season, with that famous victory over United in October the highlight so far, but they are still only one point above the drop zone with nine games to play. Their upcoming meetings against relegation rivals West Brom, Swansea and Crystal Palace could have a big say in what happens next.