After a period of three months in which both had been questioned extensively about their under-par contributions to the Manchester United cause, Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba combined to take down Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday to send Jose Mourinho’s men to the FA Cup final.
Just as they had risen to the occasion after an iffy start against Manchester City two weeks ago, sparking a 3-2 comeback win for the ages at the Etihad Stadium, Sanchez and Pogba dragged United back into proceedings after Spurs had grabbed an early lead and taken the ascendancy in a dramatic semi-final at Wembley.
But to believe that the game was over was to count against the quality and character of United, and particularly their pair of big-money purchases. Every time they fall short, there is an inquest as to why an £89.5 million midfielder and a forward paid £350,000 per week cannot make the grade. But days like these are the reason United shelled out big for them.
The game could easily have got away from United in the first half. Spurs took the lead when Dele Alli turned home an excellent cross from Christian Eriksen after Ashley Young had gone walkabout and left the slowly-retreating Pogba to cover. And, for a period afterwards, a second goal for the north Londoners felt like an inevitability.
Spurs were being allowed far too much time and space on the ball, whereas United for a time looked laboured and disinterested. But Sanchez’s equaliser altered the course of the game.
Mousa Dembele decided to attempt a nutmeg on Pogba just 20 yards from his own goal and was easily dispossessed by the Frenchman, who delivered a wonderfully-placed cross into the path of Sanchez.
While the Chilean still had plenty to do to beat Michel Vorm, his header was steered fantastically across the goalkeeper despite him having to stretch to get the desired contact.
It should have come as no surprise that Sanchez would deliver when it mattered. This was his eighth Wembley goal for club and country and his fourth in three FA Cup semi-final appearances. And coming just a fortnight after having a hand in the three goals which stunned City, this was just another example of the quality United have finally started to see shining through.
After a breathless first half, the second began at a much more sedate pace but it always felt as though that was just what United were looking for. As Spurs found trouble producing a killer pass or compelling piece of play, the Reds were waiting for their moment to pounce on the counter.
It happened in the 62nd minute, with Sanchez making a run down the Spurs right. His square pass was just about within Romelu Lukaku’s reach, and the Belgian touched the ball toward the far post where Jesse Lingard cleverly left it for Ander Herrera to drill home the winner.
In truth, United hadn’t looked back after grabbing the equaliser. After Alli put Spurs ahead David de Gea had no other save to make until a tame Eriksen effort from distance seven minutes before full-time.
The defeat is an eighth straight failure at the last-four stage for Spurs, who have not won a semi-final in this competition since a Paul Gascoigne-inspired local derby win over Arsenal in 1991.
But if Tottenham had ‘Spursed it up again’, United had showed their innate ability to deliver on the big occasion once more. Manchester United are a club built on their knack for filling the Old Trafford cabinet with silverware, and they will get another chance to do so here under the arch on May 19.
Whoever they face, be it Chelsea or Southampton, they have to be the favourites. Because with the quality of Pogba and Sanchez and the character of players like Lukaku, Lingard and Herrera, they have everything needed to deliver on the big stage.
Saturday was just a taster. The next step is making afternoons like this one the norm.