There was no sense of magic in the air — just the smell of hand sanitiser. Manchester United were made to work devilishly hard to book their place in the FA Cup semifinals, but as they secured a 2-1 extra-time win over Norwich City at Carrow Road, it was hard to escape the notion that this competition will prove to be the one that suffers most from an absence of fans.
Norwich deserved better, having overcome a nervous start to show resilience and courage. A game of fine margins went against them partly because they held home advantage in name only. The impact of supporters is obviously impossible to quantify, but the Canaries needed a 12th man here, and it would have acted as something of a leveller, especially when Norwich were down to 10 men on the field following Timm Klose’s dismissal.
The essence of the FA Cup’s mystique, diminished though it undeniably is even under normal circumstances, stems from the sense of occasion, the simple equation of a straight knockout format stirring imaginations not interrupted by league form. This was Norwich’s first FA Cup quarterfinal since 1992; the town would have been bustling all day, anticipation building to an early-evening kick-off in a stadium enthused by that heady cocktail of hope and defiance.
A browbeaten, relegation-threatened Premier League side simultaneously stood 90 minutes from Wembley, aiming to secure a result which could in turn breath new life into their survival fight. Instead, a stadium sterilised to safeguard those inside against the coronavirus pandemic was stripped of emotion in a manner we are now sadly accustomed to, and bereft of the partisan atmosphere that would have made this even tougher for United.
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Canaries manager Daniel Farke’s game plan would have benefitted from fervent support. Norwich sat deep in a 4-1-4-1 shape, looking to stay compact and hit United on the break. Every tackle would have been cheered, every counterattack roared on. Momentum would build. Instead, it felt like Norwich were delaying the inevitable.
That’s not to say United were particularly vibrant in the first half, however. A team with eight changes from the fluid Premier League win over Sheffield United was disjointed. Even Bruno Fernandes could not avoid slipping into a pattern of misplaced passes and mistimed runs, though they were always the more likely to score, however. Teemu Pukki touched the ball in United’s half just once in the opening 30 minutes, a sign of how isolated the Finland striker was as Norwich seemingly lacked the legs — or the will — to get forward.
Maguire blocked Lukas Rupp’s shot as the first half drew to a close, but neither goalkeeper was worked until Odion Ighalo scored with the first shot on target either side had managed.
Six minutes after the restart, Luke Shaw beat Emi Buendia too easily down the United left and crossed into the box. Juan Mata lifted the ball into the air but on to Ighalo, who found himself in space and steered a shot with the outside of his right foot past Tim Krul.
Fernandes’ arrival in January has been rightly heralded given both his superbly consistent individual displays and the injection of confidence he has seemingly given those around him, but Ighalo’s acquisition is proving more useful than many felt possible. This was his fifth goal since signing on loan from Shanghai Shenhua. All of them have come in cup competitions and while the 31-year-old would not strike fear into the hearts of the best defences, he has eased the burden on Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, and shown a genuine love for the club which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes could rub off on others.
Rashford, and later Martial, were required here, however, after Norwich defied conditions and logic to equalise. Todd Cantwell’s 75th-minute strike did not possess the greatest power, but United goalkeeper Sergio Romero’s slovenly attempt to dive to his left was compounded by the ball swerving away from him at a crucial moment.
Suddenly, Norwich looked enthused. Buendia flashed a shot just wide of Romero’s right-hand post. Onel Hernandez drove with purpose into the box, only to be halted by a superb sliding tackle from United substitute Brandon Williams. The pendulum had swung so much that the visitors were second-best by the time the game swung decisively in their favour, despite calling in the cavalry in the shape of Rashford, Paul Pogba, Mason Greenwood, Nemanja Matic and Brandon Williams.
Fernandes’ inventive flick gave Ighalo the chance to turn Klose. The Norwich centre-back rugby-tackled Ighalo to the ground, yet somehow possessed the audacity to protest his red card from referee Jon Moss. United spent the rest of normal time camped in Norwich’s half but the home side held on.
Imagine how the home fans would have responded.
The crowd chant played over the public address system as both the second half and extra time began was a pale imitation. Norwich were under the cosh, a man down but fighting, scrapping as extra time resembled a game of attack versus defence.
Solskjaer threw on Martial for Eric Bailly in an attempt to overwhelm Norwich, but they made it through the first additional period intact. That PA crowd chant appeared again, seemingly louder but nothing like the crescendo the real thing would have reached by now. Krul flung himself to his left to keep out a Maguire header. Wave after wave of United pressure pushed Norwich back, but a penalty shootout was in sight.
That was, until the 118th minute. Pogba played the ball into Ighalo in the box. He helped it onto Martial and as Ben Godfrey struggled to clear, Maguire pounced to sweep the ball home with his left foot.
United’s relief was palpable. Norwich were crestfallen, having given so much only to come up just short. Krul’s antics at penalties are infamous, but he was denied the chance to open his box of tricks.
“It felt strange to play this type of game behind closed doors, especially this game because it was the biggest success for this club in the FA Cup for [almost] 30 years,” said Farke after the match. “It would have had a fantastic atmosphere and would have made our supporters proud, but I think that is what we have also done with this performance and desire. We want to feel the interaction and create new memories for them, but it is a new normal at the moment. At least we can play football.”
On a banner stretched across a section of empty seats on the far side of the ground read: “You cannot see us and you can’t hear us, but we’ll always be with you.” How Norwich missed them today.