Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United’s split personality was once again on display at Wembley as they became the eighth consecutive team to knock Tottenham Hotspur out of an FA Cup semi-final since 1991.
Tottenham’s neighbours and rivals Arsenal have won the FA Cup eight times since ’91, while United have now beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Spurs since February.
When United win an important game, as they did against a Tottenham side who had outclassed them in their three previous trips to London, Mourinho usually demands credit from his many critics all too ready to declare he is a spent force, that his team plays unattractive football and he is not getting the best from his expensively assembled players.
They point to the vast gap between second-place United and their neighbours and champions Manchester City, slating Mourinho's often surly demeanour and provocative comments. Some United fans share those views and come to the fore whenever United lose.
Only convincing victories silence them temporarily.
United were convincing against Tottenham, though not for the first 25 minutes when the hosts raced into another early lead – this time after 10 minutes rather than the mere 10 seconds that it took when the teams last met in January.
Christian Eriksen was initially the best player on the pitch, while Dele Alli’s finish for the opener sealed a fine Spurs move down the right after Davison Sanchez struck a long ball to Son Heung-min, who had found space to cross behind Ashley Young and Paul Pogba.
The tempo was fast and furious on a hazy, humid day, but, as Spurs surged forward, United did not buckle.
The Messi goal
The Sanchez goal
After Alexis Sanchez, who was booed for his Arsenal connections, hung in the air to magnificently head in a 24th-minute equaliser from a cross from the equally maligned Pogba, United were the better side.
Sanchez’s goal was reminiscent of that of another diminutive South American forward, Lionel Messi, in the 2009 Uefa Champions League final for Barcelona against Manchester United. The Chilean rose so implausibly high to meet the ball and arched his back so much that Spurs’ goalkeeper Michel Vorm remained rooted and did not attempt to save it.
It was Sanchez’s eighth goal in eight games at Wembley for clubs and country.
Then, the other Manchester United turned up, gradually asserting their authority in a second half in which Sanchez shone, Ander Herrera’s 61st-minute winner sent them to a joint record 20th FA Cup final on May 19th against Chelsea or Southampton.
Tottenham’s best team since the 60s need some silverware to confirm their undoubted talent. Defeat at Wembley means they are now on the longest trophy drought in their history. Their season is now reduced to near meaningless league matches as they seek to maintain their five-point cushion to qualify for the Champions League before they move into their stunning new stadium.
United have another opportunity for Mourinho to feel vindicated by a successful season even when it has felt anything but at times. Yet, as Mourinho pointed out for the benefit of critics who constantly refuse to rate his United, they are likely to finish second rather than last season’s distant sixth. They will also have the highest points total since 2013 when the team last won the league.
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Talking up second spot is not where United want to be, but that is the reality and it is by far their best finish since Ferguson left. Try telling over 40,000 United fans who enjoyed a fine day at Wembley and have a return to look forward to in a month’s time that there is no joy in watching their team at present.
Pogba needed a big performance and enjoyed one. Ditto Sanchez and defender Phil Jones, another with demons to exorcise after an abject display at Spurs in January.
Striker Romelu Lukaku remains full of confidence, Ander Herrera is enjoying his best form of a frustrating season where he has started only a third of the league games. But like a delayed daffodil, the combative Spaniard tends to flower in April. His best performance last season came in an April game against Chelsea, in 2015 it came in another spring flourish.
After disappointments in the Premier League and the Champions League, United’s season remains alive. Tottenham’s does not.