Wolves looked a little jaded;Manchester Unitedlooked drained of quality. The result long looked inevitable and the replay must feel like a punishment for two teams with clogged fixture lists.
“If you ask me what is my preference, [I say] straight to penalties,” said Nuno Espírito Santo after his team’s 36 th match of what is turning into an epic season. “TheFA Cupwill become more emotional for sure if it goes straight to penalties.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjær saw the sense in that suggestion but noted the competition must also take account of clubs with modest means. “That’s a debate we could have and it’s not just about the top teams having too many games,” said the Manchester United manager. “We have Rochdale going to Newcastle, for example, which is fantastic.” And although United now face the prospect of playing eight matches in 25 days in January, Solskjær said: “I’d rather have a replay than go out.”
Nuno agreed with that. His team, mind you, would have spared him the chore of a replay if they had been a tad sharper here. They made enough chances to put down a United side who were promising in patches in the first half but ultimately lacked nous and dynamism.
Neither team were at full-strength. Nuno made four changes to the lineup that started Wolves ’last Premier League match, while Solskjær made seven, though given their last league game was that anaemic defeat at Arsenal, he could have left out even more on the grounds of merit. The most intriguing inclusions here were the young forwards Mason Greenwood and Tahith Chong.
The former has shown in scoring eight senior goals already this season that he is an able marksman. But his sights were misaligned here, with none of his efforts going close to the target.
For Wolves, Romain Saïss had a header deflected just wide from a corner in the 25 th minute. The next corner would have produced a goal if not for a marvelous save by Sergio Romero, who used one mighty hand to deviate Matt Doherty’s powerful volley from six yards.
United were looking brittle and, when in possession, bland. But as the first half progressed the outline of an interesting plan could be discerned, albeit one that the players struggled to execute.
Daniel James frequently darted infield from the left, allowing the impressive Brandon Williams to raid down the wing. But when James got the ball, his passing and shooting were erratic. On the other side, Chong was proving to be no more efficient.
Although United secured more possession than visitors normally enjoy here, Wolves were seldom unnerved in the first half, other than when a mistake by Leander Dendoncker gave Williams a chance to nick the ball in the home box; the Belgian recovered just in time to retrieve the situation, with the referee waving away United appeals for a penalty.
So the first half was drab yet vaguely positive for United. Which attests to how far expectations for them have fallen. Nuno introduced Raúl Jiménez at half time and later João Moutinho and Jonny Otto. Wolves dominated the second period.
Romero swatted away a drive from 20 yards by Pedro Neto in the th minute and Wolves began to take charge of possession. In a sense that made United more comfortable – this fast, uninspired side remains best equipped to counterattack. One rapid sortie in the 58 th minute forced Saïss into a foul that gave Juan Mata an opportunity to land United’s first shot on target. He bent the free-kick wide from 36 yards.
Marcus Rashford almost made the breakthrough within moments of being sprung from the bench, but Conor Coady flung himself in front of the striker’s shot, causing it to loop on to the bar.
Wolves thought they scored a valid goal in the 76 th minute, only for the referee to spot that Doherty nodded a cross by Jonny on to his own arm before it reached the net.
Wolves were emboldened. Jiménez stormed down the right and crashed an improbable shot off the bar from near the byline. But the hosts just could not find the final touch.