A Manchester Derby FA Cup final will be fun, especially if City are still looking for the treble, but sorry for Solly…
It had been a good match, but a bit strange. Both teams played well with neither Manchester United nor Brighton really being able to claim they did enough in 90 or 120 minutes to really deserve to win this FA Cup semi-final.
Maybe it wasn’t strange. Maybe it was strange only because two good teams play competently it was so wildly at odds with what we had witnessed earlier in the day.
But both teams deserved credit. Brighton for stepping up and performing in such an important game, United for the speed with which they placed Behind them the horror of Europe on Thursday night against Sevilla.
Brighton saw the ball more, and the fact that it’s a perfectly normal and to be expected thing for them against Manchester United may seem like a corny, condescending ‘look how far you’ve come’ remark, but it’s still worth doing. This was a knockout game between peers. Brighton was not the brave heroic underdog playing above himself; they were the team they’ve been all season, except with a cruel throwback to the xG jokes of yore.
Here too, however, more credit is due to United’s defense than to the blame attached to Brighton’s finish. David De Gea – Thursday night’s worst offender – had a fine game for 120 minutes before transforming into a hologram once more in the face of six admittedly fine penalties, while the resolute nature of United’s performance in the absence of three centre-backs it was highly admirable.
Admirable sounded like the word for this game. All were admirable. All were good. It is not necessary that there is a figure on which the result is pinned. Which is, of course, the cruel irony of every match going to penalties: by definition, the match was hard fought and by definition some poor guy is going to be the central figure in the loss.
And you really don’t have to be a Nobody But United hardliner to get a little gutted, has to be Solly March, one of the stories of the season and whose career-defining season after a decade of service with the Seagulls will now always have this unwanted and undeserved asterisk against it.
It was a surprise absence from the top five shooters and he took a sensationally bad penalty in a shootout filled with surprisingly good shots when he was forced to the spot by sudden death. As always, though, while March’s place in infamy is assured, there’s reason to pay more attention to those who don’t accept them. The obvious eye-catcher here is the brilliant Kaoru Mitoma, who was also one of three Japanese players to botch a grisly mess in that rather inferior shootout against Croatia in the World Cup.
Miss March’s nature will screech more powerfully. Like Harry Kane after the World Cup defeat by Hugo Lloris’ France, she will regret her inability to hit the target against a goalkeeper whose qualities do not seem to extend to saved penalties.
Brighton will have little time to dwell on their disappointment, or reflect on the agonizing what happens if their focus is mainly on Robert Sanchez getting a good hand from Marcel Sabitzer’s penalty but not keeping it out altogether. And that’s probably for the best. There is a European place to secure for next season and they should manage it. They are currently eighth, but unless today causes a complete and unlikely undoing, they should bring up a very good Aston Villa with their games in hand and will surely finish above free-falling Tottenham. They could still very easily finish up to fifth and shouldn’t finish lower than seventh; it’s an excellent result, no matter how painful it ended today.
A season of progress and promise continues for United. The tangible rewards are already in place thanks to the Carabao trophy and an almost certain return to the Champions League.
And now they’ve staged a spicy old Manchester Derby FA Cup Final, which is nice, isn’t it? It seems absurd that it is the first ever, but it won’t lack narrative, especially if City are still pursuing a United-matched Treble that nobody really cares about. It will be something, right?
And if all else fails, you have United in the running for last season’s Liverpool Cup Double. United still have days where the travails of recent years come to the surface in an alarming fashion, but two trophies and a return to elite European football would make for a stunning and sheer first season success for Erik Ten Hag.