Manchester United will point to a ludicrous handball decision for their FA Cup exit but in truth, they only have themselves to blame.
Ralf Rangnick’s side are right to feel hard done by. Even with the change to the handball rule in the summer it seemed farcical that Matt Crooks’ goal should have been able to stand after Duncan Watmore handled it in the build-up.
It was deemed accidental according to the officials but anyone sitting in the stands at Old Trafford on Friday night could see the Middlesbrough substitute move his left hand towards the ball to control it before passing to Crooks to finish.
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But Rangnick’s side can only look at themselves as to why they are not in the hat for the fifth-round draw. They should have had the game dead and buried long before it went to extra-time and penalties with teenager Anthony Elanga missing the decisive spot-kick.
He was consoled by Cristiano Ronaldo as he walked down the tunnel, with Boro players celebrating alongside their 9,000 travelling supporters. Had the Portugal international not missed his own penalty in the first half, though, it might have been a different story.
His effort was wide of the post and for much of the game his presence was a hindrance rather than a help.
Dean Henderson, making his first start under Rangnick, could have brought a flask and sleeping bag such was United’s dominance in the first half. They might have been playing against Championship opposition but the home side’s passing and intensity was improved from recent displays and in the first half alone they managed 14 shots, with six of those on target.
Paul Pogba’s first appearance since the start of November was positive and Jadon Sancho produced his brightest performance in a United shirt. But it wasn’t enough. Chance after chance went begging.
On another day they would have had the tie wrapped up by half-time with Sancho hitting the bar within two minutes, Ronaldo missing a penalty and Marcus Rashford having a goal ruled out by the offside flag – all that before the visitors had even managed a shot.
Every chance missed was met with exasperation mainly from Ronaldo, who produced a poor performance. His return to United has sparked many a debate and his display on the eve of his 37th birthday will have done nothing to persuade doubters that it was the right decision.
He wasn’t the only one who didn’t deliver. United are a team that needs leadership to get over the line and that was lacking on a rainy evening at Old Trafford.
For all their dominance and control in the opening period they were poor in the second half. They were devoid of creativity and ideas, despite their 25 shots on target. The defence has improved under Rangnick but going forward they don’t seem to be gelling in the same way.
The biggest problem for United is that this now, barring a European miracle, they look set to end yet another season without silverware. They are in a top-four battle in the Premier League, out of the Carabao Cup and now out of the FA Cup. Their only chance for a trophy is in the Champions League, where they are drawn with Atletico Madrid in the last 16.
A season that started with talk of mounting serious challenges on multiple fronts has reached a point where only one longshot chance of a trophy remains.
They can only blame themselves.