By Hritika Sharma, member of The FA Young Reporters' Club and currently studies Football Journalism at the University of Derby.
Nuno’s at the wheel, and Wolverhampton Wanderers are into the semi-final of the Emirates FA Cup.
His masterplan worked to perfection, and Wolves deservedly handed Manchester United another defeat following their 2-0 loss to Arsenal in the Premier League last weekend. When it was all over, the home fans were ecstatic, the celebrations were joyous, and the Old Gold were on their way to Wembley.
Even the freezing winds and pouring rain could do nothing to dampen the spirits at a packed Molineux Stadium, with both sets of supporters in a constant battle with each other, exchanging and overlapping one chant after another. It was almost as if the players were struggling to keep up with that intensity. The 100th meeting between the two sides began with the opening exchanges being particularly cagey, as the teams took their time to settle in. And although the weather comparatively mellowed not long after kick-off, the atmosphere certainly did not, with the home faithful drowning out every song from United’s 4,500-odd away support and noise levels going through the roof.
With 10 minutes gone, the first chance of the game fell to Paul Pogba, but his attempt went wide of John Ruddy’s left post, not dangerous enough for the ‘keeper to trouble himself. Shortly after, Marcus Rashford’s long-range shot was comfortably saved by Ruddy. For the most part during the opening exchanges, the Wolves defence was calm and composed, and dealt with every United threat with precision.
The early stages hinted at a possible stalemate between the two; sure enough, the half was uneventful and lacking in quality for the most part, only improving towards the very end. From a corner, Conor Coady’s cross fell to Rúben Neves outside the 18-yard box. With excellent technique, he hit it first time towards the goal, where Sergio Romero did well to smother it down. At the other end, Rashford found himself at the end of a short corner routine, but his powerful shot was nowhere near the target. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was understandably frustrated on the sidelines, conversing at length with the fourth official while theatrically throwing his arms round in every direction.
There were penalty shouts from both teams in quick succession, which referee Martin Atkinson waved away. Just minutes before half-time, Diogo Jota was put through on goal by Neves, with no opposing defenders in sight. It was the best chance of the game at that point and Romero made a crucial save, drawing an agonising groan from the home fans. United will feel they should have made better use of all that possession, while the only possible hiccup in Wolves’ near-perfect gameplan was Jota’s missed opportunity.
Immediately after the restart, Rashford – with frightening pace – sprinted past Coady down the right-hand side; the defender just about managed to send the ball out of play with a sliding challenge. Romero made a better, outstanding save early in the second period, flying out to somehow tip over Raúl Jiménez’s header. Wolves were now attacking with incision and Romero was called into action once again, this time from João Moutinho. United were second-best, thankful for their second-choice ‘keeper making the decisive stops. Every attack from the Red Devils was met by a wall of Old Gold, and they seemed toothless against it, unable to find a way to break it down.
A Wolves goal had been coming for a while, and it came through Jiménez. Moutinho made his way into the box and Jimenéz’s initial shot was blocked by Romero, but he could do nothing about the rebound as the ball rolled past him into the net. Molineux erupted, producing a deafening sound. It can be hard to believe that the roar was even louder when Jota scored their second goal, but FA Cup nights with a semi-final spot at stake transform impossible thoughts into manifestations of reality.
Wolves were out for blood and mortally wounded Solskjaer’s side from a blistering counter-attack. Assisted by Jiménez and Neves, Jota ran behind the United defence to fire past Romero, atoning for his miss earlier. As the game drew to a close, Victor Lindelöf was shown a straight red card for his sliding tackle on Jota, which was overturned by VAR and downgraded to a booking.
In the final minute of the five added on, Rashford managed to find space in the Wolves box and halved the deficit. All that late drama, and it was exactly that: too late. This was Wolves’ night, and Nuno’s, and nothing would take it away from them.