Sport Writer Arthur Parashar reports from Molineux, where the Wolves and Manchester United played out a goalless draw in the third round of the FA Cup.
Following on from an exhausting festive period, with fixtures still coming thick and fast, the last thing either manager would have wanted was a third round replay in the FA Cup. However, after Wolves and Manchester United played out an uneventful 0-0 stalemate last Saturday at Molineux, the sides will be forced to play again in a week’s time for a place in the fourth round.
Unfortunately for the neutral, the incredible pre-match light show proved to be the highlight of the game. Molineux continues to leave visiting supporters impressed with noisy home fans and excellent entertainment. In the moments before kick-off, the suspense kicks in and fans brace themselves, as luminous lasers and fiery flames displayed as a ‘W’ appear to rock music and lights, while 30,000 adoring fans belt out ‘Hi Ho Wolverhampton!’ to the tune of Hi Ho Silver Lining. After the roaring start, this fixture joined the rest of the ties around the UK in kicking off one minute late to give fans the opportunity to reflect on their mental health and those around them as part of a pioneering campaign initiated by lifelong Aston Villa fan Prince William and the FA.
Wolves manager Nuno Esperito Santo will have felt disappointed not to have entered the fourth round after they controlled and dominated proceedings on a cold January evening. It was his side who came out of the blocks the quickest, calling United keeper Sergio Romero into action with a quite extraordinary point-blank save after Leander Dendoncker’s flick-on found Matt Doherty at the back post. In fact, Doherty later had the ball in the net with 15 minutes to go following an exquisite cross by Jonny that eluded the whole United backline, only for it to be ruled out, correctly, as the ball struck the arm of Doherty before crossing the line.
This is now the fifth consecutive match where Solskjaer has failed to overcome this impressive Wolves side, but they did come close just seconds after a double substitution saw PFA Player of the Month Marcus Rashford and the in-form Fred enter the frame. It was the Brazilian midfielder who broke up play and quickly fed the ball into the frontline, before Rashford’s shot struck the heel of Conor Coady and the ball looked destined to hit the back of the net, only to loop up onto the crossbar. Had this gone in, it would have masked what was a tame performance from the visitors, who failed to register a shot on target for the first time since 2015.
The woodwork was then struck at the other end by half-time substitute Raul Jimenez, who surprised everyone by shooting from an impossible angle. Romero would have counted himself lucky as the ball flew away out of danger. Jimenez had come on for 21-year-old Benny Ashley-Seal who had caused Victor Lindelof some early problems with his lightning pace on the counter. After the game, Nuno explained he still has a lot to learn and that the ‘routines weren’t quite working’, hence the change.
Solskjaer may have reason to be pleased earning a draw considering the rotated side which saw seven changes as a result of injuries and illness to key first-team players including Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and Scott McTominay. It was a new-look United side which saw the likes of Tahith Chong and Brandon Williams enjoy some more minutes in the first-team. Williams, who came in for Luke Shaw on the back of a poor performance at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal, demonstrated he can be serious competition, coming up against one of the strongest, quickest and in-form players in the Premier League in Adama Traore. He even had a strong claim for a penalty which VAR reviewed after bursting forward.
It was clear the Wolves game plan was to get Traore on the ball as quickly as possible, but the United left-back certainly showed no signs of intimidation, dealing with his opponent successfully on a number of occasions. In truth, United as a whole kept him relatively quiet with the ever-present Harry Maguire putting in two crunching tackles in on him. This soon changed in the second half as the winger began to find his rhythm, linking up well with Doherty on the right and whipping some menacing balls into the area.
United, on the other hand, were wasteful with the ball and lacked any sort of threat. The forwards continued to run in behind but, as has happened all season, they did not receive adequate service, emphasising the struggle without Paul Pogba and the need to strengthen in midfield over the January transfer window. Solskjaer is set to be without his two best midfielders, McTominay and Pogba, for a number of weeks with tough fixtures against rivals Manchester City and Liverpool to come this month.
Wolves, who outplayed United for much of the game, will want to make it one step further in the competition this year, following a devastating semi-final defeat to Watford in last season’s competition, where they caved in after being 2-0 up with 11 minutes left. This was after they had beaten the Red Devils in the preceding round in what was a much more exciting affair. The only other real chance of this year’s tie was a trademark Juan Mata free kick which left Molineux momentarily in utter silence as the ball whistled past the post after John Ruddy had committed the wrong way. Wolves must now take huge positives from the game before the replay with just one match against out of form Newcastle in between. Both Nuno and Solskjaer agreed that they would prefer it if the game had just gone straight to penalties but admitted that they are relishing another contest with one another.
The replay will take place on 14th January. A victory for Wolves would secure a fourth round tie against League One outfit Tranmere or familiar foes Watford.