Manchester United are out of the FA Cup. Ralf Rangnick might argue that they should not be, both on the balance of play and the nature of the goal they conceded, but the only hope of silverware at Old Trafford this season is now the Champions League trophy and it would be a stretch to call that realistic. Middlesbrough are instead celebrating a famous victory and a place in the fifth round, won by a penalty shoot-out.
After 15 perfect spot-kicks, it was cruel that the decisive miss was Anthony Elanga’s, the teenager recently promoted to the first team by Rangnick and who has otherwise impressed. The blame for this early cup exit cannot be placed at his door, though. This was a collective failure.
United started brightly, missed a first half spot-kick through Cristiano Ronaldo and yet still led courtesy of a deflected Jadon Sancho strike. On the balance of play, Rangnick’s side really should have secured their place in Sunday’s fifth round draw inside the regulation. That they did not was due to a combination of poor finishing, questionable game management and controversial officiating.
Was Duncan Watmore’s touch before Matt Crooks’ equaliser handball? It seemed so, but referee Anthony Taylor considered it accidental, as did VAR. It was an odd goal but it did not need to be the turning point which it transpired to be. From then on, United lost a lot of their vigour. There was a point, perhaps, where they were even playing for penalties. Middlesbrough, meanwhile, dug in and made their luck.
The most notable name on the team sheet was that of Paul Pogba, returning to the starting line-up for the first time since suffering a calf injury while on international duty in November. This was Rangnick’s first opportunity to call upon United’s record signing, and he deployed him alongside Bruno Fernandes in a midfield pairing, with Scott McTominay holding for support.
Dean Henderson started between the posts but this was otherwise about as close to a first-choice United line-up as possible. The gulf in class could have told inside two minutes when a mix-up between Joe Lumley and his centre-half Dael Fry presented Jadon Sancho with an opportunity to chip the Middlesbrough goalkeeper, but there was too much height on his attempt from outside the area and it bounced back off the crossbar.
United had started as they meant to go on, though. Their opponents may only have been the seventh-placed team in the second tier, even when allowing for Middlesbrough’s recent good form, but this was the closest approximation yet to the fast and fluid attacking play that Rangnick wants to see. Wave upon wave of extended pressure during the opening 20 minutes resulted in Pogba being tripped by Anfernee Dijksteel and winning a penalty.
Ronaldo walked up to the spot having scored 143 penalties in his career. This, to the surprise of the many supporters in the old Scoreboard End holding camera phones, would be the 29th that he has missed. That is still an excellent record – well above average – but this was a far from excellent penalty, struck low and hard but off-target, wide of Lumley’s right-hand post.
The 9,500 travelling Middlesbrough supporters revelled in Ronaldo’s misery with a long, booming ‘Siuuu’ – the five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s insufferable catchphrase – but their joy would be short-lived. United maintained their relentless pace and, after a Pogba interception and raking Fernandes pass, Sancho burst in behind the visiting defence, shot across Lumley and found the far corner from a narrow angle.
It was exactly the type of moment that Sancho’s fledgling United career has needed and, unfortunately, perhaps still needs. Just as with his “goal” in the 3-1 win over Burnley in December, the decisive touch had appeared to come off a defender. Dijksteel’s deflection had made all the difference. Still, it was a well-crafted move and nothing less than United’s start had deserved.
Given that they had missed a penalty, spurned several presentable chances and a technical fault at Old Trafford had prevented the sale of pies and beer on the concourse at half time, things were going well for United. That would soon change. For even though United began with the same intensity at the start of the second half, Middlesbrough began to find more joy on the counterattack. Henderson was finally called upon, forced into a sprawling, acrobatic save by Crooks, and his next significant action was to pick the ball out of the back of his net.
It was life-long United fan Crooks again, sliding in at the far post to send the thousands travelling from North Yorkshire into raptures, but in controversial circumstances. Watmore had appeared to bring a deep cross under control first awkwardly with his right foot, then illegally with his left hand, before sending a deflected shot back across goal for Crooks to finish. Referee Anthony Taylor did not intervene and neither did VAR.
United were not so incensed as they were dumbfounded by the decision, which seemed like an open and shut case of handball. Whether it was the correct call or not, it would have been an irrelevance had United made the most of the opportunities they had created. That wastefulness peaked when Fernandes somehow contrived to hit the post on open goal, after Ronaldo’s pressing had flustered Middlesbrough on a short goal kick and left Lumley exposed. It was a better scoring chance than the penalty. Still, it was missed.
With much of Middlesbrough’s threat on the break now spent, United toiled in search of the goal that would avoid extra time and failed to find it. Things were no easier in the additional half hour, when the absences of Jesse Lingard and Edinson Cavani – granted time off after the winter break – were felt. When Sancho was forced off with a hamstring injury, the only attacking player Rangnick could turn to was Juan Mata, making only his fourth appearance of the season.
And if anything, the best chances fell Middlesbrough’s way. Aaron Connolly, on loan from Brighton, first failed to meet a low Watmore cross that skimmed across the face of goal in the first half of extra time. In the second, he flicked a deep free-kick goalward only for Henderson to turn away. Both opportunities were better than anything that a fatigued United could muster up. Perhaps they fancied their chances in the lottery of shoot-out, though Henderson’s failure to stop eight Middlesbrough spot-kicks set up the 19-year-old Elanga for a sudden death kick that has all but killed United’s hopes of a trophy.