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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Why this was the greatest FA Cup tie in living memory

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When it was all over, this breathless madness, there were as many overlapping dramas on the Old Trafford pitch as on a Renaissance fresco. Amad Diallo headed down the tunnel in a state of near-delirium, his winning strike having been superseded in seconds by his red card. Antony fell to his knees, this unloved player emotionally wrung out from scoring only his second goal this season. And on the touchline, Erik ten Hag’s beaming grin was juxtaposed with the thousand-yard stare of Jurgen Klopp, whose dream of a farewell quadruple had turned to dust.Seven goals, 123 minutes of hysteria, and one stunningly incongruous sending-off: these were the defining ingredients of what must surely be a contender for the greatest FA Cup match ever played. The tendency towards such absolute verdicts can be misplaced, distorted by recency bias. But the pedigree of the two clubs, coupled with the jeopardy for both managers and the endlessly see-sawing drama, cemented this as an instant classic.Quite apart from leaving indelible memories for all who witnessed it, it was a reminder of the romance of which this competition is capable.Marcus Rashford left no room for doubt, acclaiming this as a “massive game in the history of United”. His own lurches in fortune mirrored the violent rhythms of a barn-burning quarter-final: one moment his face was creased in agony at missing a gift of a chance to steal this for United inside 90 minutes – even if video replays later suggested he was offside – and the next he was wheeling away in euphoria at his extra-time equaliser.The FA Cup hastens the evolution from hero to zero like nothing else. And you only had to look at the bewilderment of Diallo, stalking back to the dressing room while the crowd continued to chant his name outside, to realise that the principle also held true in reverse.It is not only in the eyes of United fans that the FA Cup has its lustre back. This was an occasion to unite casuals and aficionados alike, with children and season ticket-holders clutching their heads in disbelief at the final whistle. “Can you actually believe that?” one radio commentator screamed, in response to the Rashford miss. That was before the concluding act, a half-hour so improbable that it elevated this game from a compelling saga to a genuine epic.Amad Diallo wheels away after his extra-time winner against Liverpool – Getty Images/Paul Ellis‌United have graced their share of rollicking FA Cup contests. For many, it would be difficult to eclipse the image of Ryan Giggs slaloming past three Arsenal defenders in 1999, only to leather the ball into the roof of the net and rip his shirt off for good measure.Plus, for the purists, there are the timeless upsets: Newcastle’s defeat by non-League Hereford in 1972, Coventry City’s triumph in 1987 courtesy of Gary Mabbutt’s knee.There are only two serious rivals to this staggering Old Trafford spectacle. As if Liverpool’s victory over West Ham in 2006 were not rousing enough, thanks to Steven Gerrard’s lethal half-volley with the clock ticking down, Crystal Palace’s class of 1990 have found themselves atop many an all-time list. A side who had lost 9-0 to Liverpool in the league that season beating the same opponents in the semi-final at Villa Park? Stories seldom come any more cathartic.‌That was before the convulsive scenes in extra time here forced a re-evaluation. These were two clubs with 20 FA Cup crowns between them, and by the chaotic finale they were trading blows as ferociously as Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns once did in the opening round at Caesar’s Palace. Not for decades had United been cast as valiant underdogs. But they embraced the role here, with Diallo, Rashford and the near-forgotten Antony arriving right on cue to restore pride.To think that, even deep in the second half, the prognosis for Ten Hag had looked terminal. The cameras panned ominously to Sir Dave Brailsford, United’s performance guru, looking thunderous in his executive box. Ten Hag resembled a man presiding over a gradual but irresistible slide, about to lead this team out of contention for every trophy by the middle of March.But then the world tilted on its axis, and Antony, a man who had grown emblematic of United’s wasteful spending and toothless play, came to his manager’s rescue. It was at this point you knew that this would be a match like no other.Better still, this unforgettable theatre was on free-to-air television. While there was no substitute for the thrill of watching it in person, it was a day enriched by its visibility elsewhere. Diverting as it might be to see great duels between United and Liverpool bookmarked by the opinions of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Sky, this instalment deserved its removal from the restrictions of pay TV.The FA Cup’s future on terrestrial is already precarious, with Warner Bros Discovery having struck a deal to screen a record number of ties from the season after next. Here was the evidence, if any were needed, that it was worth fighting for it to be broadcast to the widest possible audience.The sense of nostalgia was so powerful that you could almost touch it. How fitting that Sir Alex Ferguson was in the building, as Old Trafford had not shaken so much since his departure 11 years ago.When Mohamed Salah delivered his gut punch of a goal on the stroke of half-time, much of the crowd drifted into a fatalistic acceptance of what awaited them.But no sooner did Antony arrive on the scene than everything changed. A fierce, guttural roar resounded around the stadium, with supporters sensing that these United players were not such pushovers after all.When Rashford stroked home their third, the decibel level approached jet-engine levels. With Diallo’s final flourish, it was as though this game had unmoored itself from reality. Some fans barely knew where they were longer, but they wore the manic smiles of people who had savoured perhaps the finest FA Cup vintage of all.Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. 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